First published in Florida Writers Association Collections, Vol. 15: Secrets, 2023
Memories of Sarah fill my Sunday afternoon as I sit beneath the canvas roof of our favorite place on the beach, a little Tiki bar called Jamaica Johnny’s. My sun-warmed skin cools as palm fronds feather-dance against a darkening sky and rain etches circles in the sand. I sit alone, sipping rum and coke as lightning strikes in the distance. The pounding beat of a Reggae band silences the thunder. The chair to my left is empty. Sarah’s chair. I summon a vision of her wind tousled hair, a half-smile playing on her lips. The Reggae beat is sensual, the song suggestive.
I close my eyes and will myself to see her as I did that other rainy Sunday when we sat here together, her fingers reaching across the table, pressing into the palm of my hand. We listened to the Reggae beat, the same singer singing the same suggestive song.
I remember how captivated I was the first time I saw her at David’s party. He brought me into the family room to show off an art déco sculpture he had purchased from a Sarasota gallery. Sarah stood a few feet from the sculpture, talking with a small group of women, hands in her pockets, laughing. The round tortoiseshell glasses she wore had slipped down to the end of her nose, but she didn’t seem to notice. The sight enchanted me.
“David,” I murmured, tugging on his sleeve. “Who is the blonde wearing the khaki overalls?”
“That’s Sarah,” he said. “She’s new in town.”
I asked if she was there alone, and if she was single. David told me I should ask her myself and dragged me over to the women.
“Excuse me ladies,” he announced in his drama queen voice. “I have an important introduction to make.” He grasped Sarah’s left hand. “Sarah, I’d like you to meet my dear friend Rebecca.”
She smiled. A crooked, brief smile that was adorable. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. Then David placed my right hand into Sarah’s left hand, so that we were not shaking hands, but holding hands. I felt my cheeks warm when he pressed our palms together and said, “stay” as if he were commanding a dog. Then he turned and sauntered away. Sarah and I both laughed self-consciously, and as much as I hated to do it, I released her hand.
Two things I never believed in were love at first sight, and happily ever-after. But meeting Sarah changed my mind. Within the first nine months of dating, we committed to each other. I dreamed of someday marrying Sarah, if such a thing ever became possible. Yet we never even lived together. When I proposed the idea to her, she reminded me she wasn’t out to her family, and may never be.
Sarah’s parents are Christians with a capital C—Southern Baptists who consider homosexuality a sin. Even worse, her brothers believe being gay is an abomination, which caused Sarah to fear being cut off from her nieces. Sarah’s sexuality had to remain a secret, and that secret forced me back into the closet with her.
For the next year and a half, we kept separate homes. And then the unthinkable happened. A malignant brain tumor struck Sarah down. Of course, I wanted to be with her at every stage, to support her, to let her know I loved her, but her family shut me out. I had always suspected Sarah’s mother disliked me—that she could sense Sarah, and I shared a secret relationship.
The night before her surgery, I found Sarah alone in her hospital room, sitting on the edge of the bed, barefoot and wearing a blue hospital gown. When I leaned over to kiss her, she turned her face, offered me her cheek.
“Mother is here somewhere,” she whispered.
“Okay.” I perched next to her on the bed. “Your teeth are chattering. Where’s your robe? You should have socks on.”
“Not cold,” she said, her chin quivering. “Scared.”
I grabbed her hand. “Oh, Sarah, I—”
Before I finished my sentence, her mother bustled into the room. “Well, hello, Rebecca. How long have you been here?” Sarah pulled her hand out from under mine. “You know, dear, it’s not proper to sit on a patient’s hospital bed.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my cheeks burning. “I just got here a couple of minutes ago.”
Sarah told her mother she was okay with me sitting there, but I stood and moved to the foot of the bed.
“Get under the covers, Sarah.” Her mother dimmed the lights and gestured to the door. “She needs her rest now.”
Sarah’s eyes pleaded with me to stay. I wish I hadn’t given in to her mother’s obvious command that I leave, but I did. I leaned over, brushed Sarah’s forehead with my lips, and whispered, “I love you.”
Many months have gone by, and I’ve returned to Jamaica Johnny’s alone, to sit near the beach, to close my eyes against the images of hospital sheets soiled with bodily fluids, the silent blip of Sarah’s heart monitor arcing and falling in syncopated rhythms. I struggle to erase the hospital scene and instead try to hold on to the memory of Sarah and me making love against a backdrop of the Reggae beat. I long for her breath on my cheek, to press my mouth against her throat, and feel the vibration of her life force. My darling, blue-eyed Sarah.
The Reggae band stops playing, but its sensual beat continues in my head.
Anne and I had been dating only a few months when she suggested we spend the Thanksgiving weekend together camping in The Everglades. I agreed, happy to get to know a place so dear to Anne’s heart. Not only had she been their Poet-In-Residence, she was also an Everglades volunteer. Anne is connected to The Everglades in a deeply meaningful way, although I’m not sure Anne would agree that ‘connected’ is the right word. Finding the right word is important to Anne—this woman who hums to alligators.
Although eager to spend this holiday weekend with Anne, I felt a little anxious. I was still pretty shy around her, and I didn’t want to screw things up by making any camping faux pas. Aside from that, I had never before camped in an alligator’s backyard, and wasn’t thrilled about the incursion of pythons to the area.
I remember we had gotten a late start that day. Neither of us had eaten lunch, so we stopped for dinner at a Chinese restaurant along the way. I don’t recall if my gut sent any red flags up at the thought of General Tso’s Chicken, but as a longtime sufferer of IBS, I should have nixed the suggestion of any foods containing MSG. Coupling nerves together with Chinese food can be a disaster for me.
By the time we finished dinner, the sun was making its way below the western horizon, and my gut was urging me to use the restroom even before leaving the restaurant. But a few miles down the highway, General Tso’s Revenge hit again. I had no choice but to ask Anne to stop somewhere so I could use a restroom. It embarrassed me to ask, but Anne is kind and so she pulled into a McDonald’s at the next exit.
The drive took longer than I had expected, over two hours, so when I saw the sign for The Everglades, I voiced a silent hooray because my stomach was cramping again.
“How far is the campsite?”
“Just a few miles,” Anne said.
A few miles? Oh, no. I squeezed my butt cheeks together and gave silent thanks to the inventor of Kegel exercises. By now the sun had set, and the road was dark. Nothing was visible out the windows except trees and bushes. It mortified me to tell Anne I needed a bathroom again, but it would have been much worse if I had an accident.
“Anne, if it’s much further, I’m afraid I won’t make it. I need a bathroom.”
“I’m sorry. I think it’s the Chinese food.” I’m certain Anne is mentally scolding herself for inviting me along.
“There are no bathrooms around here. I’ll have to pull over.”
As soon as the car stopped, I darted behind the closest bush and pulled my pants down. That’s when they swarmed me. The mosquitoes. What the hell? My butt became a target, a feast for the bloodsuckers. I pulled my pants back up, ran to the car, jumped in, and slammed the door. Anne asked if I was okay.
“Mosquitoes attacked me.”
“Oh, dear, did they bite you?”
Bite me? They fucking tried to eat me alive!
“Kinda. Ha ha.”
When we reached the campsite, I had to leave the safety of the car to help Anne erect the tent. Mosquitoes swarmed my head, my neck, my ears, and my arms. They even bit between my fingers. I slapped myself so much I may have left bruises.
Anne saw my torment. “Get back in the car,” she said. “I can finish this myself.”
Once Anne had the tent up and our gear stashed, I crawled inside.
“Stupid me, I never gave a thought to mosquitoes,” I said. “I didn’t bring any bug repellant. Did you bring any with you?”
She unzipped her backpack. “I brought some natural repellent that doesn’t contain deet.”
Of course it doesn’t contain deet. Why would you use deet? God forbid you bring something that actually repels mosquitoes.
“That’s okay, Anne,” I lied. “I don’t use deet either.”
“I wish there was something I could do for you.”
Kill me now!
Anne touched my shoulder. “I’m concerned about you. Will you be alright?”
No, I’m not gonna be alright. I’m in agony. I feel like I’m lying in the sand and a thousand ants are eating me alive. Every inch of my body is on fire. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m sure the itching will stop soon.”
“I can’t believe how tolerant you are,” Anne said. “Not everyone would be so calm after having so many mosquito bites.”
Damn right they wouldn’t. In fact, if you were anyone else, if you were Pat, or Jane, or Pamela, I’d be screaming at the top of my lungs to get me the fuck out of here.
“Don’t worry, Anne, it’s not a big deal.”
Anne retrieved an itch crème in her bag, natural of course, and I slathered it on, all the while mentally screaming every four-letter word I knew. I laid down on top of my sleeping bag, knowing sleep would be impossible if the itching didn’t stop. I squeezed my eyes shut and gritted my teeth, not wanting to make a fool of myself by thrashing and moaning next to Anne, who I could tell was already asleep.
I liked Anne a lot, and this was our first weekend away. I didn’t want to ruin her plans by making a big stink over mosquito bites. I also didn’t want her to think I’m a sissy who whines over every little thing on a camping trip. It’s not like I’ve never camped before. I loved camping in Upstate New York, and we had plenty of mosquitoes there, but nothing, I mean nothing, like the Everglades’ mosquitoes. They’re like a Red Cross Blood Drive.
I must have passed out eventually because I woke up alone in the tent, the yellow, pink, and orange of sunrise peeking through the trees. Anne was sitting outside, brewing coffee around a camp stove. I spoke to her through the tent’s mesh window. “Is it safe for me to come out?”
Anne smiled. “I think so.”
Just as I was about to unzip the tent, I peered at Anne’s face.
“Look out. You have a couple of mosquitoes perched on your forehead.”
Anne brushed her hand across her face and the mosquitoes flew off.
“They didn’t bite you?”
“No, mosquitoes don’t seem to bother me.”
Goody goody for you. In the meantime, I’m trapped inside this freaking tent until the sun comes up.
The sun came up, and I learned how to avoid mosquitoes by remaining inside the tent from dusk until dawn, not frantically waving my arms around whenever one flew near me, and I avoided walking through canopies and grassy areas as much as possible. I refrained from whining about my mosquito bites and ended up having a good time. I’m glad I didn’t dwell on the Everglades pythons, or the alligators on The Anhinga Trail. They stayed in the water and off the boardwalk.
During the ride home, still focused on my bites, I googled information about mosquitoes and once home, wrote a poem about them:
WET SEASON IN THE EVERGLADES
They are everywhere,
beneath leafy canopies, in tall grass
and dense bushes, they lie in wait.
Hear the fertile one humming?
Drawn by my breath, the heat of my body,
whining, droning, keening.
Thirsty. I swat at her wingbeats buzzing my ear.
She seeks my neck, craves my blood.
Her straw-like mouth probes, sips, tastes.
I swat. Miss. Itch.
She strikes again, intent to breed, to
reproduce one hundred or more
of those fucking, sucking,
I slap hard, flatten her,
leave a trail of blood
on my sweaty skin.
If you’re wondering whether Anne ever took me back to The Everglades, the answer is yes. But we slept in the volunteer’s quarters rather than pitching a tent. Oh, and I remembered to bring plenty of mosquito repellent with me—no deet, of course.
Back in April of this year, I responded to a question on Quora. For those who don’t know, Quora is a social media Q&A platform. Users ask and/or answer questions on a myriad of subjects. The question I answered was: “What is the scariest unexplainable thing that ever happened to you?”
I have had an interest in the paranormal since childhood, but as I matured, I developed a healthy skepticism in the sense that I attempt to find a reasonable explanation for something that seems magical or supernatural. However, the narrative I wrote about on Quora continues to baffle me. Perhaps you, the reader, can offer a better explanation than I for how an ancient Greek or Roman coin dropped into my bedroom out of thin air.
To give a little background, after my sister Susan died, I began finding pennies in unexpected places—the middle of my bathtub or inside a slipper, for example. Of course, I find pennies in places you might expect to find them, such as on the ground or a table or the floor of my car. Since I find pennies in all these places, both expected and unexpected, I wonder if each time I find a penny, is it a sign from Susan? Common sense would tell me no, but here’s an incident I cannot explain: I had just taken a shower and walked naked into my bedroom. I picked my nightgown up from the bed and slipped it over my head. As the nightgown slid down my body, I heard “plink”—the sound of a coin falling onto the floor. The coin (shown below) is smaller and much thinner than a U.S. penny, and thousands of years older.
Having an interest in the supernatural, I recalled hearing the word apport, which is French for to bring. An apport is an object that appears by seemingly spiritual means. Supposedly, Mediums could apport objects during seances, but I believe most of those instances are hoaxes.
I searched my memory for any way I may have come upon this coin. The only circumstance I recall was a visit I had made to The British Museum in London where I saw a display of Greek and Roman coins. But that was fifteen years ago, and I did not purchase any ancient coins as keepsakes. I had never seen this coin before.
The question, where did the coin come from, and who sent it remained. As I mentioned earlier, I had written about this coin in Quora. I had dictated rather than typed the narrative into my iPad, and I spoke the words, “I wonder if my sister sent it.” Instead of typing the word “it” the word auto-corrected to the word “yes.” I tried repeating the word “it” many times, and the iPad continued typing “yes” until finally I realized my question was being answered. Yes! The coin is from my sister. Once I made the connection, I had no further issue with typing the word “it”.
I haven’t yet taken the coin to a collector. I’ve looked at Greek and Roman coins on the internet, but haven’t found an image of the exact coin. Several readers suggested the coin might be worth a lot of money, but from what I could find out, the monetary value of the coin is around forty U.S. dollars. To me, however, this coin is a gift from the spirit world, a precious priceless gift from Susan.
PART THREE – Wedding Bells
Over the years, I lost my wedding album, but one photo is forever engraved in my memory—the one of Dad walking me down the aisle, both our faces somber, expressions more fit for a funeral than a wedding. I don’t know what Dad’s thoughts were as I held on to his arm, but a few weeks before the wedding he said, “Are you sure, Joanie? It’s not too late. We can call it off.”
As I stepped out of my house in my wedding gown, several neighbors stood along the sidewalk to watch as I climbed into the limo. My gown and headpiece were beautiful, like something out of the film Camelot, but I remember feeling uncomfortable wearing it, as if someone dressed me for a costume party on the wrong day.
Driving the few blocks to the church, a gentle rain splattered the limo’s windshield. When we arrived, someone held an umbrella over my head as I walked into the church. He said, “Don’t worry, rain is lucky on a wedding day, so long as the bride doesn’t get wet.”
The center aisles of St. James Church filled with guests. My two flower girls, Sherri and Donna, were adorable in the same style gowns as my three bridesmaids. Susan was my maid of Honor. My cousin Carol, who by this time had gone back to being straight and was engaged to a man, was one of my bridesmaids, along with my friend Dee, and, God love her, my ex- lover and new sister-in-law, Ellen. They all looked beautiful. I think I just looked scared. Other than my walk down the aisle, I have no memory of the wedding except for this: after Jimmy and I took our vows; the priest hesitated before releasing us. He reached out to me and said, “I want you to know that I am here for you if you ever have a problem or need to talk.” His words didn’t alarm me because I didn’t know they weren’t a common part of a wedding ceremony. Although, afterwards, several people asked what the priest had said to me, and expressed surprise when I told them.
Six weeks later, when meeting with the same priest to inquire about an annulment, I asked him why he voiced concern during the ceremony. He said, “I just felt something was not quite right with Jim. I tried looking into his military records to find something that would raise a red flag, but there was nothing.”
Blaming Jimmy for our failed marriage would be a copout, even though on the outside, it appeared as if the breakup may have been his fault. He physically abused me. It was just the one time. But one time was once too many for me, so I walked out. I admit I was in a bitchy mood that evening, and my bitchiness made him angry enough to throw me across the room.
The comments made to me from the people I told stunned me. Most thought I was too hasty and should give him another chance. The harshest criticism came from my Aunt Lorraine, who, after I told her Jimmy threatened to kill me, said, “So what? You can just as easily walk into the street and get hit by a car.”
The worst reaction, however, was from the Italian divorce attorney who was the uncle of my Aunt Marge’s husband. He thought I had no reason to file for divorce, and said, “My wife knows I expect dinner on the table every night at five o’clock, and if my dinner isn’t ready, I have every right to hit her.”
I believe the biggest mistake I made before getting married was that I had been a virgin. I didn’t have intercourse with Jimmy or any other guy I dated before him. The only sex I had was with women, who are all about foreplay. Jimmy, however, was a graduate of the ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’ school of sexual intimacy. No wonder nothing happened on our wedding night other than me crying and Jimmy apologizing. The next day we left for our honeymoon in the Pocono mountains, which was a success only because I got drunk before every sexual encounter.
Through it all, Ellen and I remained friends, even though her family temporarily shunned her for taking my side. Ellen put up with a lot of shit from me. Not only did I marry her brother, talk her into being my bridesmaid, but I also made her date my brother. When I die, I may have to spend a few hundred years in Purgatory for penance.
After my disastrous attempt to go straight, I once again began dating women, but I was still in the closet with my family and at work. I tried confiding in a work buddy, but once I came out to her, she stopped speaking to me.
Fast forward several years, and many relationships later, I came out of the closet completely. I joined a gay & lesbian chorus, published a lesbian novel, and was out to all of my friends and coworkers.
And in 2011, I married again. This time to a woman. We married in Niagara Falls, Canada, four years before gay marriage became legal in the states. As I look back on that relationship, I know the reason I agreed to get married was because I wanted a “forever”—most likely because my mother abandoned me. Abandonment can fuck a person up. At least it did me.
My first marriage lasted six weeks, my second one, six years. The lengthiest, and best, relationship I ever experienced was the thirteen years I spent with Holly, my West Highland White Terrier. Looking back, I realize I’m much happier living with four-legged roommates.
Many gay men and lesbians have lost jobs, housing, or families, suffered hate crimes, or lost children to divorce. Not one of us emerged from the closet unscathed. We’ve come a long way since the 90s, when I marched in my first Gay Pride Parade in New York City. I never thought, in my lifetime, gay men and lesbians could be open about who they love, legally marry, have children together, and be favorably portrayed in movies and television programs. After everything we’ve been through, being accepted as much as we are today is amazing to me.
I’m not saying things are perfect. There are still people who are homophobic, and others who are ignorant about homosexuality. For example, a while back, I spent a week at a training center in Kentucky, during which I forged a sort of friendship with two very “girly” straight women. The three of us spent a lot of our free time together—lunches, dinners, shopping. We worked for the same corporation and our jobs meant we would need to interact with each other from time to time in the future. Conversations between the two women mainly comprised their favorite brands of eye-shadow, the importance of exfoliating, and which was best for nails—gel or acrylics?
One of the junior trainees in the program was an “out” lesbian—what we would call a baby dyke because she was young and boyish. During one day at lunch, the two women referred to the young woman, saying, “It’s such a shame that lesbians are too unattractive to find a man.”
That comment riled me. I said, “I beg your pardon, but I’m a lesbian, and I’ve never had a problem finding a man. I just don’t want one.” They laughed and said, “Oh, Joanna, you’re so funny.” When they realized I wasn’t joking, they apologized, but also stopped inviting me to join them for lunch the rest of the week.
I hesitate to come out to straight women unless we’ve established a solid friendship first., with good reason. I had become friendly with a Christian woman who lived in the same building as me. We were both recovering alcoholics, and would occasionally go to an A.A. meeting together. She knew I had written a novel, and that my protagonist was also in recovery. When she asked to read the book, I told her that my protagonist is a lesbian. I said, “Just skip the sex scenes if they bother you”.
A week later, as we walked to our cars in the parking lot after an A.A. meeting, she stopped short, turned to me and demanded, “Are you a lesbian?”
My mind raced, struggling to predict the consequence if I told her the truth. A little voice inside my head shouted, “Don’t!”
“No,” I said.
“That’s a relief.” She let out a huge breath and pressed her palm to her heart. “I thought you gave me the book to read because you’re attracted to me.”
“God, no! I’m not attracted to you.” Don’t flatter yourself.
“I thought maybe you were coming on to me.”
“I’m glad,” she said, “because if you were a lesbian, we couldn’t still be friends.”
As you can probably guess, I ended our friendship.
Although I mentioned the woman is a Christian, I don’t believe all Christians are homophobes. In my apartment building, for example, I’m friends with three born-again Christian women who know I’m gay and accept me for who I am, not who they want me to be. I’ve also confided in a few straight male friends who live in my building, and our friendships have become even closer—probably because there’s no sexual tension between us. I’ve since come out to my writers’ group, and I’m out on my website and social media as well.
I no longer engage with people who are homophobes, xenophobes, racists, anti-semites, or chauvinists. And if they don’t want to engage with me, all the better. I had spent way too many years in closets where it’s hard to breathe. The air is much sweeter out here, so I’m planning to stay.
PART 2 – Tangled Webs
While still living at home, my gay friends introduced me to a woman named Gloria, who also still lived with her parents. We spent weekends together once or twice a month at a mutual friend’s house, or she’d occasionally drive down to Newark to visit me for a few hours. Gloria lived about two hours north, so we wrote to each other during the weeks we weren’t together. Back then, cellphones didn’t exist, and using the house phone would not give us any privacy, so snail mail was our only option.
I told my parents that I had a boyfriend—Gloria’s cousin Michael. Michael didn’t really exist. When Gloria wrote to me, she always signed her letters with Michael’s name—except the one letter in which she revealed her shame and hopelessness over being gay. She said she feared despair would drive her to suicide. The letter frightened me, and so I tore it into tiny pieces and threw the pieces into a paper garbage bag. God forbid anyone else should read that letter.
After eight months, Gloria and I broke up. She had found someone new and left me heartbroken. I rebounded into a relationship with a woman I barely knew. Dottie Lee. Very butch, short dyed black hair, no makeup, masculine clothes. Plus, she was overweight. Not my type. The one thing Dottie did offer was a ticket out of Newark. She drove a ’57 Chevy and wanted a woman to share a house with. And I needed to escape my parent’s home.
Dottie and I rented a small furnished house in Lake Hopatcong and found jobs working at a tin can manufacturing company. I had never worked in a factory before, and had no clue how I should dress. I laugh when I look back on my first day, when I showed up wearing cranberry stretch pants and alligator boots from Saks Fifth Avenue (I had worked there as a wig stylist and benefited from a great employee discount). I wore a mohair sweater, a gold charm bracelet, earrings, full makeup, and shoulder-length blond hair. The women on the line hated me on sight. And to make matters worse, the manager offered me the job of quality control, which meant I had to reject the cans that didn’t meet QC requirements. I took my job seriously, so, when air bubbles escaped the cans after I dunked them in water, I rejected them—as if the women didn’t hate me enough already.
I had very little money, but as soon as I got the job, I applied for a Bamberger’s credit card. The card limit was three hundred dollars. That was a lot of money back then, when three rooms of cheap furniture sold for three hundred dollars.
The day after my new credit card arrived, Dottie left to go food shopping, returning later with a portable television set, dishes, a toaster, clothes, and I don’t remember what else.
“Where’d you get all this stuff?” I asked.
“Bamberger’s. I used your card.”
I eyeballed the pile of loot. “How much did you spend?”
“Three hundred dollars.”
Dottie did not make out as well as I did at work. She took time off right from the beginning, and because we used her car to get there, I also had to call in sick. After three absences within a month, the manager pulled me aside and said he was going to fire Dottie. He asked if I had other transportation to get to work. I didn’t, so that meant I was out of a job, too.
Being jobless didn’t seem to bother Dottie in the least. By pooling our last paychecks, we had enough money to feed ourselves for the next month, but not enough to pay rent, electric, or the Bamberger’s bill. Dottie convinced me to pawn my gold jewelry, including a charm bracelet my parents gave me, with a new charm for every special occasion. I balked at pawning the jewelry, but Dottie convinced me we would get my jewelry back when we found other jobs, but that never happened.
Neither of us applied for jobs. I had no way of getting to a job, and Dottie had no interest in working. Instead, she came up with a bright idea about how to get some cash.
“There’s a guy in Dover who passes counterfeit money,” she said. “He’ll let me keep ten dollars for every fake twenty I pass.”
My first thought should have been, No! That’s illegal. But I had grown up in Newark, in an Italian neighborhood where the Mafia had a big presence. My family lived near the Port, where longshoremen unloading crates from the ships would “accidentally” drop a crate. They sold those goods out of the trunks of cars in my neighborhood. I remember my stepmom buying some of those stolen goods. One day, when she and I went shopping, I switched price tags on a bathing suit. After we left the store, I bragged to my mother about what I had done.
“Don’t you ever do that again when I’m with you!” she said. What I heard was, stealing is okay if I do in when I’m alone. Therefore, passing counterfeit money didn’t seem like such a stretch. I told Dottie I wanted to go with her.
“You can’t. If my friend sees someone with me, he won’t give me the bills.”
“He doesn’t have to see me,” I reasoned. “I’ll wait a block away and when you get the money, you can pick me up.”
“No. I can’t take the chance.”
So, I agreed to wait at home. When she returned several hours later, she showered the couch with ten-dollar bills. We now had enough money to pay rent, but that’s not what we spent it on.
Dottie liked to drink. I drank, too, but only when I went out to the bars to give myself false courage. But with Dottie, I began drinking in bars during the day, every day.
When I think back to that time and see myself sitting on a barstool drinking seven and sevens for breakfast, I remember feeling kind of badass. But it took only two short months with Dottie before smoking, drinking, and eating crap changed me. I had lost weight. My hair was listless, and dark circles formed under my eyes. I had fulfilled my destiny—I morphed into my birth mother.
One afternoon, we came home from the bar to find an eviction notice on our front door. The Sheriff locked all of our belongings in the house, and we didn’t have the money to pay the rent to get our stuff back. We were so poor at that point that I remember taking soda and beer bottles off people’s porches to return them for the nickel deposit. Five returns bought us a pack of cigarettes.
My parents, however, thought I was doing okay. I had told them I worked for Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company as a secretary, and was dating a guy named George. During one of my phone calls home, Jay said she tried calling me at my job and they told her I didn’t work there. I gave her some bullshit story that someone must have transferred her to the wrong department. I don’t think she bought the lie.
“Your father and I want to see you as soon as possible.”
I said I would come on Saturday and that my boyfriend George would drive me down. George was a gay friend of Dottie’s who agreed to play the part of my boyfriend. The slang term is ‘beard.’
George was my beard. Because I’m feminine, I made a good beard for gay guys who needed a date for a wedding or company function. Lesbians use gay men, if they’re not too effeminate, for the same purpose.
My father was tending bar when we arrived in Newark, so I brought George upstairs where we found my stepmom at the kitchen table, her face wearing a flat affect.
“Hi Mom,” I said, a tentative smile on my face. “I’d like you to meet George.”
Something was up. She didn’t smile back at me, or greet George. All she said was, “There’s a pot of coffee on the stove.”
George sat at the table, and I poured coffee into a mug for him. Then, not thinking, I said, “How do you take your coffee?” Stupid. You shouldn’t have to ask your boyfriend how he takes his coffee.
“Your father wants to talk to you,” Mom said. “He’ll be up in a couple of minutes.”
I sat at the table wanting to make small talk, but something felt off and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Mom sat stone-faced until Dad came upstairs.
When he walked into the kitchen, Dad asked to speak with me alone. He led the way into the back bedroom my sister Susan and I used to share. I shuffled behind him, a knot in my stomach.
Dad’s pale face looked grief stricken. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m going to need you to be honest with me, Joanie. Susan found a paper bag in the closet that had torn pieces of a letter inside. She showed it to Mom and Mom taped the pieces back together and read the letter. The letter was from Gloria. Do you remember what the letter said?”
Oh my god, this can’t be happening. The color drained from my face. “I remember.”
“The reason she taped the letter back together is that we’re worried about you. Doc Lordi told me he saw your friend Gloria come into his restaurant with another woman and they were playing footsies under the table.” Under different circumstances, I may have laughed at Dad’s use of the archaic term “footsies”. I didn’t want to know what Gloria and her girlfriend were doing under the table. It infuriated me she drove two hours to bring her new girlfriend to my neighbor’s pizzeria and make it obvious they were lesbians.
Changing the subject, Dad asked, “Who is this guy you brought with you?”
“A friend.” I avoided eye contact.
“But not your boyfriend.” It wasn’t a question. “Do you have a job at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals?”
Close to tears, my voice cracked. “No, I’m sorry, Dad, I’m really, really sorry,” I sobbed.
He opened his arms, and I fell into them. “Mom is having a hard time with this,” he said. “You need to talk to her.”
“I will,” I said, sniffling.
Dad gave me his handkerchief to blow my nose. “I’m not mad at you, Joanie.” Then he smiled. “I just wish you had better taste in women.”
It was just like my dad to make a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood, and I loved him for it because it was his way of saying he loved me.
When I returned to the kitchen, George still sat at the table, gripping the coffee mug so hard his knuckles turned white. “Where’s my mother?” I whispered.
He pointed to the bedroom off the kitchen.
I tapped on the door frame, but she didn’t look at me until I spoke. “I’m sorry, Mom,” I said, my voice trembling. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
“Sorry. What good is sorry?” That was her go-to response whenever I apologized for anything—spilled milk or a broken dish.
“I don’t know what else to say.”
“You disgust me.” She made a face like she smelled something rotten. “I can’t have sex with your father anymore because when I think of you it makes me sick.” She flapped her hand in dismissal and turned away from me.
My cheeks burned with shame, and I ran from the room, motioning George to follow me outside. When he opened the car’s passenger side door for me, he asked, “What the hell happened?”
“They found out I’m gay.” I dropped my head into my hands and wept. “I kept on apologizing to them as if I have a choice in the matter, as if I wasn’t born this way. Like I could wave a magic wand and make myself not be queer.”
I didn’t know what to do, but remaining with Dottie was no longer an option. Not only were we evicted from the last place we lived, but I discovered, through an acquaintance of hers, that the ten-dollar bills Dottie brought home weren’t from passing counterfeit bills. They were from her giving blow jobs to guys out of a Dover motel.
I didn’t want to go back home, not after the awful thing Jay said to me, but what choice did I have? Dottie and I were homeless and jobless, sleeping on the floor of the apartment my cousin Carol shared with Joanie.
Dad requested a family meeting the following week. The three of us sat on the couch together, me slouching in the middle between mom and dad. Dad began by saying, “I discussed your situation with Dr. Dubinet.”
“Why would you talk to the doctor about me?”
“He can get you help.”
My jaw tensed. “Help how?”
“By referring you to a psychologist.”
“What?” I wanted to jump off the sofa. “What’s a psychologist going to do?”
“He’s going to help you get your life back on track. You don’t want to continue living the way you have been, do you?”
Of course, I didn’t. Not the way I was living with Dottie. I shook my head.
“All we ask is that you try.”
Try what? Try to be straight? Is that even possible? I gave in. “Okay.”
Then he asked, “How long have you been this way? Was it Gloria who turned you?”
“No, Dad. Nobody turned me. I’ve been this way since I was a little kid. I’m surprised you hadn’t guessed years ago.”
He frowned. “How would we have guessed?”
“Don’t you remember? I told you I wanted to be a boy.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Lots of girls are tomboys at that age.”
“I was more than a tomboy.”
“I’m sorry, but Mom says the only way you can come home is if you agree to therapy once a week.”
So, I agreed, and a few weeks later, I found a job and moved back with my parents. What I didn’t tell them was that during those few weeks, I started dating a cute, curly-haired young woman named Ellen and we fell in love. As much as I wanted to be accepted by my family, my attraction to women remained. I hoped the psychologist could help me.
My parents never questioned why I spent every weekend with Ellen and her family. Maybe because Ellen passed for straight, or because she still lived at home with her parents. The main reason could have been because Ellen drove me to my weekly psychologist’s appointments. The weird thing was, neither of my parents ever mentioned my gayness again, or asked how therapy was going.
On Saturday nights, Ellen and I joined friends at Fran Bell’s, the gay bar in Nyack. I wanted to be there, but I hated that Fran allowed straight people in for the entertainment. Sometimes I felt like an animal in a zoo, with straight couples gawking at and whispering about the gay men and lesbians.
I loved Ellen, but I was so unhappy. I still drank too much, but stopped drinking during the day. I drank to get drunk and always ended the evening vomiting in the bathroom toilet.
During the time I had weekly therapy with the psychologist, Ellen and I continued with our relationship. But I remained adamant about going straight. The psychologist warned me I was making a mistake.
“You need to accept yourself for who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Yeah, tell that to my family. I need to be cured.”
“That’s not possible. I can’t make you become something you’re not.”
I refused to listen, and because he refused to “make me straight”, I ended my weekly sessions.
In retrospect, I thank God that my psychologist wanted me to accept myself, and not use “conversion therapy”—a set of pseudoscientific techniques designed to quash gay people’s sexuality and make them conform to society’s expectations of how they should behave. I had enough self-induced shame, pain, and self-hatred. I didn’t need shock treatments, or God forbid, a lobotomy. What I did need was to accept myself. I wish I had heeded his advice.
I was selfish. I wanted Ellen in my life, but as a sister, not a lover. We had been together for four years and I loved her, but not in the way she wanted. I also loved her family, her mom and dad, even more than I loved my own. I wanted to belong to them.
In 1966, the United States was involved in the Vietnam war. Ellen’s younger brother, Jimmy, had been drafted and sent to Korea. I began writing to him, and during the two years of his deployment, he and I explored the possibility of dating when he came home.
I knew Ellen was still in love with me, but we were no longer in a relationship. I was so self-absorbed, so inconsiderate of Ellen’s feelings. Not to mention Jimmy’s. I wasn’t in love with him. But I tried to make myself believe I could be. I began fantasizing about marriage and children, and I prayed Ellen would understand how important that was to me. I no longer wanted my sexuality to alienate me from my family, and I hoped Jimmy was my ticket to a normal life.
When Ellen’s brother came home from Korea, he asked me to marry him, and God help me, I said, “Yes.”
PART THREE - Wedding Bells
PART 1 – The Closet
Growing up in Newark, I spent almost every Sunday afternoon at the Rivoli. The darkened movie theater was my escape, my safe place, filled with adventure, romance, and mystery. Hollywood promised me a happily ever-after life, where good trumps evil and the hero rides off into the sunset with the girl. Only I didn’t want to be the girl. I wanted to be the hero who rode off with the girl.
Why? The textbook answer could be that I used my first crush at seven (Sister John Mary, who taught catechism after church on Sundays) as a stand-in for a mother who had abandoned me. But abandonment by itself does not cause homosexuality.
When I was four years old, my father re-married. My new stepmother’s name was Jay, a woman with whom I should have been able to develop a loving mother/daughter relationship if my birth mother hadn’t convinced me that Jay didn’t love me because I wasn’t hers. So, whenever Jay attempted to show affection, I stiffened my body, pulled away, or smirked. It didn’t take her long to stop trying.
In fourth grade, an adorable blond-haired, blue-eyed girl transferred to my classroom. Totally out of character, I passed her a note telling her she was pretty, and asked if we could play together after school. Much to my delight, Gloria and I became friends, and I don’t remember their being any ‘hormonal’ feelings attached to that friendship. But I preferred to play at her house rather than mine because of the way her mother always treated her, and me, with kindness.
By the time I was thirteen-years-old, girls attracted me more than boys did, but I didn’t understand why and tried to not think about it because thinking about it scared met. No one back then talked about sexual orientation. Then one day, my best friend, Barbara, asked if she could fix my bangs. We sat close, facing each other, and when she reached her arms up to my face, all hell broke loose within my body. My face flushed, my tummy tightened, and my heart raced. I felt faint and made an excuse; I don’t remember what, and rushed home wondering what the hell that was about. Fear and shame slapped me in the face. I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what.
Growing up, I was a tomboy, so most of my playmates were boys—my stepbrother Jimmy, cousin Sammy, Sonny Nataline, and Butchy Napurano. There were girls my age in the neighborhood, but they went to St. James Catholic School, and I attended Oliver Street School. The parochial school kids didn’t mix with us public school kids. Butchy Napurano was the one exception.
One day, when I was ten or eleven, I asked Butchy to walk with me to Independence Park, a long block from our houses. Taller than most girls my age, I wore my hair cut short like a boy, and when I wasn’t in school or church clothes, I dressed in Wrangler dungarees and polo shirts. At the start of the walk, I plopped a straw cowboy hat on my head and pulled its brim down over my eyes.
Butchy frowned at my hat. “Why are you wearing that?”
“I want to see if I can pass for a boy. I don’t want to be a girl anymore.”
We walked up Warwick Street toward the park and passed two boys sitting on their stoop.
“Shhh,” I whispered to Butchy. “I want to hear if they say anything.”
As we passed the stoop, one boy asked, “Is that a girl or a boy?”
“I’m not sure,” the other one said, “but I think it’s a boy.”
Yes! We walked a little further, and I made us do an about-face. I wanted to pass the boys again.
“I thought you wanted to go to the park,” Butchy said.
“I changed my mind.” I pushed my hands in my pockets and put my head down as we passed the boys again.
That’s when I heard the boy say, “Aw, it’s a girl.”
That night, I threw myself into my father’s arms and cried. “I don’t want to grow up to be a woman.” I doubt he knew what to make of that confession. And when he asked me why not, I told him I didn’t want to turn into my mother. “I want to grow up to be like you.”
In retrospect, I consider myself lucky that I grew up decades before adolescents with gender dysphoria could, with medical and parental approval, begin hormone treatments. Given the opportunity then to opt out of being a girl, I may have begged for the hormones. But that would have been a gigantic mistake, because by the time I reached high school, I traded my dungarees for tight skirts and lipstick. It never was about my anatomy; I just didn’t love myself.
In high school, all the girls wanted boyfriends, and even though I still crushed on girls, I also began looking at boys. I mooned over pictures of Fabian and Elvis, but had secret crushes on Doris Day and Kim Novak.
When I turned sixteen, I discovered what was wrong with me after reading pulp fiction about women who loved women. I found the book in a pile of paperbacks one of my father’s friends had given him. The book, “A Different Kind of Love” perfectly described the feelings I had when I was around pretty girls.
I discovered that drug store paperback racks contained a number of lesbian novels. They were easy to spot because there were always two women on the cover. That’s how I learned the L word. And now that I knew what I was, I wondered how I would ever find a girlfriend. Two more years passed before I shared my first kiss with a girl. But in the meantime, I acted boy- crazy like the rest of the girls in high school. The most boy-crazy was Dee Dee. We were the same age, but her parents were more lenient than mine and allowed her to bleach her hair and wear makeup. She tried for a Brigitte Bardot-look and got lots of attention from boys.
Dee and I liked to walk around the neighborhood in the evenings carrying transistor radios tuned to “Cousin Brucie” or “Murray the K”. We were also looking for boys from school, but Dee had a tendency to attract older boys driving cars. Several times, Dee ended up in the car with one of them, while I stood outside with the unlucky boy who tried and failed to entice me into the backseat. I had my goody-goody act down pat so I wouldn’t have to kiss the boy.
I didn’t get away with that for much longer. Once we began double-dating, I found myself in the backseat with my dates shoving their tongues in my mouth and their hands up my blouse. No matter how much I protested, how many times I said, “No!” the boys didn’t stop trying. It would have made more sense for me to not date, but I couldn’t risk my friends or family suspecting I was different. I was so unhappy in those days, knowing I was gay, and not knowing what to do about it.
During my senior year of high school, I went to work part-time for New Jersey Bell as a Long-Distance Operator. I had just turned seventeen and still had never met a lesbian. I had hoped I would meet someone at work, but even if I had, I was too shy to do anything about it. But my luck was about to change in the most improbable way.
My cousin Carol, who worked for Ma Bell in Irvington, said she developed a close friendship with another telephone operator named Joanie. She talked about Joanie all the time, and during one of our phone conversations, she told me that Joanie shared she was gay.
“I don’t know what to do,” Carol said. “I really like her, but I don’t know if I should continue a friendship with her now that I know she’s gay. What do you think I should do?”
How did I respond? In a self-serving manner, of course. “I don’t think you should hold that against her, Carol. She’s been a good friend to you, and you shouldn’t allow the fact that she’s gay hinder your friendship.”
“So, you think I should still be friends with her?”
“I do.” Yes, yes, I do, I do, I do!
Long story short, three months later, my straight, but obviously bi-curious, cousin Carol called me to say she had fallen in love with Joanie and they were now together.
“Oh, my god,” I said. “I’m so happy for you. And by the way, I’m also gay.”
Their relationship didn’t last longer than a couple of years, but long enough for me to be introduced to the lesbian community. Joanie set me up on a blind date with a beautiful girl named Darlene. Blonde hair, blue eyes, dimples. The plan was that Darlene and I would be alone together in Joanie’s blue Plymouth Valiant parked outside of Fran Bell’s, a gay bar in Nyack, New York. I was so nervous sitting in the passenger seat, knowing any second Darlene was going to lean over and kiss me.
That first kiss. Darlene’s smooth cheeks, soft lips, the scent of her perfume, and the softness of the pink mohair sweater she wore—I know it’s a cliché, but I was in heaven. I thought Darlene was perfect. But, unfortunately for me, Darlene wasn’t gay. She had a definite preference for men, and only “brought me out” as a favor.
The year was 1962, a time when lesbians labeled themselves either butch or femme. I was femme, but not attracted to women who dressed and acted like men. Joanie, who identified as butch, warned me there was no way I would attract a feminine woman unless I became butch. Well, that wasn’t gonna happen—the eleven-year-old girl who wanted to be a boy was long gone.
The 50s and 60s were a time when homosexuality was against the law, considered a sin against God, and classified in the DSM as a mental illness. Shame and fear at the thought of being discovered haunted me. I knew I risked arrest by going to gay bars. I had heard and read about the women who had been pulled from the bars and strip-searched. Those caught wearing men’s underwear were carted off to jail. To protect myself, I frequented bars that were Mafia-owned, or bars where the owners paid the cops for protection.
Being a lesbian, I learned to lie to protect myself. Lying became second nature to me. Mis-using pronouns worried me the most. He/him instead of she/her. God, it was awful. I had to be on my toes constantly. Especially around my stepmom, who always asked where I went and with whom. One day, I came home with a hickey on my neck, compliments of Darlene. Jay was furious.
“How did you get that?”
“Dancing? With who?”
“Some guy at the bar.”
“How did he give you a hickey while you were dancing? Didn’t you know he was doing that?”
Ugh. I needed to move away from my family. The further, the better. A few months after my nineteenth birthday, I left to share a house with another woman.
I considered myself a closeted lesbian. I believed that no one outside of my gay social circle knew my secret. A gay male friend pretended to be my boyfriend. I thought for sure I had slammed my closet door shut, locked it tight, and nailed a board across it. But one day, someone close to me pried my closet door open in a most unfortunate way.
Part Three – Resolution
The moment I stepped off the elevator at Martland Hospital, the stench of urine smacked me in the face. Someone had stacked dozens of dirty bedpans against the wall near the entrance to the ward. It was not a burn ward—no such ward existed in the city hospital. A dozen beds lined the walls on either side—men and women together in the same room.
My mother’s bed was the third one on the left. It shocked me to see her alert and sitting up. As soon as she saw me, her first words were an apology.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
How could I look at her without betraying the horror in my eyes? Except for her face and the top of her head, her body was black with char from her ears to her chest.
I shook my head. “Don’t apologize. Just tell me what happened.”
“I was lying in bed and had a cigarette in the ashtray on the table. The window fan blew the cigarette onto the bed, and my bed jacket went up in flames.”
I knew that was a lie, but I understood she couldn’t say the truth, that she was drunk and passed out with a cigarette in her hand.
“Are you in pain?” I asked. She must be in pain.
She shook her head. “I don’t feel anything, but I must look horrible. I haven’t seen myself in a mirror. How do I look?”
“You look okay,” I lied, hoping no one would hold a mirror up to her face. I looked around the room. A naked semi-conscious black man sprawled in the bed across from my mother’s, and a naked woman lay in the bed next to him. Mother, too, was naked, but a sheet covered her to her waist. I didn’t know what to say, where to look, how to act. It was hard to tolerate the smell of her charred flesh, nauseating and sweet, like nothing I’d ever smelled before. I couldn’t bear to stay any longer; I had to leave.
“Before you go, ask the nurse for ice chips. They won’t let me drink, but my throat is so dry.”
No one was at the nurses’ station, and no nurse or aide was anywhere in sight. I should have searched the corridor, but I escaped into an elevator and ran from the hospital.
The next day, my mother was no longer sitting upright. She lay in the bed in obvious pain and distress. Does she have pain medicine? Why do her burns not have dressings? Who is her doctor? Why isn’t Wally here? Who is in charge here? I should have asked those questions. I was twenty years old, no longer a child. But I was immature, and too timid to question adults. I couldn’t take charge of my own life, let alone my mother’s
“I’m having trouble breathing,” my mother said. “Please find the doctor.”
I am so ashamed of what I did next; I fled the hospital without alerting anyone. How could I have done such an unforgivable thing? I have asked myself that question dozens of times, but I have no sane explanation. To admit that I didn’t believe her looks now to be ridiculous, but at the time I thought she was exaggerating her distress, seeking to garner sympathy from me just as she had my whole life. All of her lies, her exaggerations, bombarded me at once and I turned away.
I was angry at her for causing the fire, and at myself for not stopping on my way home from work to make certain she was okay. What if I could have prevented this from happening? I berated myself for not having the courage and compassion to ensure the doctors gave my mother better medical care.
On the third day, a tracheotomy, a surgical procedure that enabled her to breathe through a hole in her throat, assisted my mother’s breathing. She hadn’t exaggerated, she couldn’t breathe. The guilt just kept piling on top of me.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, my mother seemed unaware of my presence. I stood by her bedside for several minutes, then left.
The next day, my mother’s other sister, Aunt Frances, was leaving the ward as I was going in. I didn’t know Frances well. I was in her company a few times years before when she had visited my grandmother. She and my mother did not always get along, but their relationship was not as volatile as the one between my mother and Aunt Marge. There were times my mother said she hated Aunt Marge, and she made me swear I would never, no matter how desperate I may be in the future, ask Aunt Marge for money.
“I just saw your mother,” said Aunt Frances. “She’s in bad shape.”
“I know. She wasn’t conscious yesterday when I came.”
“She is now. I was just talking to her.”
When I entered the ward, I didn’t see my mother. An elderly white woman who lay so still I was not sure she was breathing, now occupied the space my mother’s bed had been. I spun around, my eyes searching the other beds, and found my mother on the opposite side of the room. She lay with a sheet covering her body up to her neck.
“Mom?” I whispered.
She didn’t acknowledge me. Her blue eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling above her bed. I looked up. There was nothing there, just the white ceiling, yellowed with age.
“Mom?” I said again.
Her forehead creased, and her eyes looked frightened.
“Hail Mary,” she said. “Hail Mary, full of grace. “
“Hail Mary full of grace… Hail Mary full of grace…. Hail Mary…. Hail Mary…. Hail Mary….”
What did she see? She focused her eyes toward the ceiling as if she could see through it at something or someone not of this world.
Her tone was pleading, insistent. “Hail Mary! Hail Mary!”
Was she seeing the Virgin Mother?
I lingered at her bedside for several more minutes, not knowing that would be the last time I was to see my mother; that she would die over the 4th of July weekend while I escaped to the Jersey shore. If I had the same choice now, I would never think of leaving my dying mother’s bedside, regardless of whether she was conscious. I would not allow her to die alone.
When I arrived home after the weekend, my father told me that my mother’s body was still in the hospital’s morgue awaiting my decision.
“My decision?” I croaked. “I don’t know what to do, or how to make funeral arrangements.”
I telephoned Wally. He said he had no money, and that as far as planning the funeral, I should be the one to decide.
I turned to my father. “I don’t know how to do this, Daddy.”
I thought maybe Dad would offer to help, but instead he suggested I look in the phone book and start calling funeral parlors. So that’s what I did. But I was resentful as hell, especially when I found out that Aunt Marge was still on vacation and refused to cut her trip short to help with arrangements.
After making a few phone calls, I learned just how expensive funerals are, and that the funeral homes all wanted money up front. As a last resort, I called People’s Burial Company. Their yellow pages ad advertised low-cost funerals. I scheduled an appointment and made Wally go with me to make the arrangements.
I declined the director’s offer to let me view my mother’s body before the casket (the least expensive one—the blue one that looked like cardboard with faux velvet material covering it) was closed. I could not bring myself to look at her.
While discussing the arrangements, Wally informed the funeral director that my mother did not have life insurance. We had no choice but to ask Aunt Marge for the money; she was the only one in the family who could afford to pay for a funeral. I thought back to the promise I had made to my mother that I would never ask Aunt Marge for money. I disobeyed my mother’s wishes, but what choice did I have? There was no insurance money, no savings, and nowhere else to turn. Aunt Marge grudgingly came up with the money, but she never let me forget she did so.
Back then, Catholicism still indoctrinated me. I still believed in Heaven and Hell and worried about my mother’s soul. She had not confessed her sins, and did not receive Last Rites. Would the way she lived her life doom her to spend an eternity in Hell?
The funeral director arranged for a Catholic Mass to be said at her funeral, and I listened as the priest read a passage from the “Book of Wisdom:”
For if in the eyes of men, indeed they be punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them,
and found them worthy of himself.
I clung to the hope that its message meant God had used the fire to cleanse my mother’s soul. I reasoned that if God forgave her, I wouldn’t have to.
For several years after my mother’s death, I had a recurring nightmare in which a stranger told me that my mother was still alive, and he gave me the address where she was living. The route I followed was complicated and unfamiliar. I drove for hours on twisting, winding roads. When I stood before the wooden door of her apartment, I knocked once, then twice. No one answered. I knocked again and again, but my mother never came to the door. I awakened with a yearning for my mother that I could not shake.
On and off for several years I worked with various therapists, and during one session, my therapist suggested I try putting my mother in an empty chair. “Using an empty chair differs from using your imagination,” she explained. “The chair keeps your mind from drifting away from its purpose.”
The next day, I did as she suggested—I invited the ghost of my mother to sit in an empty chair facing me. I pictured her younger than when she died, with smooth skin and shiny auburn hair. I imagined she felt suspicious, maybe even frightened, by what I might say to her.
I cleared my throat and began.
“Mom, I invited you here to talk about the past, and I need to warn you I have very few good memories to share. I need to tell you my story, the parts you played in it, and parts you didn’t. Whether you were in my presence, you influenced my every move.” I took a deep breath. “There had been so many times when I wished you had aborted me.”
I talked for a long time, holding nothing back. I told her how much she had hurt me, and how I had longed for her to be a mother to me. I wept, allowing myself a few minutes of self-pity, and then sat quietly until a sense of peace enveloped me. Of course, I didn’t hear my mother’s voice speak to me, but I imagined I felt her sorrow and her regrets. I understood that my mother’s intent was never to hurt me—her alcoholism did far more harm to her than it ever did to me. The time had come for me to let go.
Before putting the chairs away, I said, “I forgive you.”
Not long after the empty chair session, my recurring dream returned one last time. I drove the same convoluted route along the same winding roads. When I reached my mother’s apartment, I ran up to the door and knocked. Then I knocked again. This time my mother opened the door and took me into her arms.
There are still times when I feel a sense of longing, but I no longer dwell on those feelings. Over time, the memories have become less important. Forgiving my mother has been like shining a flashlight in a dark stairwell. Blame was too heavy a club to carry, and to be rid of it has been liberating.
It has been many years since I lived in Jersey, over twenty since I visited. The old neighborhood looked the same. Although the signs in the store windows are now written in Portuguese, security gates now protected the entrance doors to Grandpa’s old tavern, and iron grillwork covers all the first-floor windows. Cuccazella’s grocery story is now Torrie’s, and in one of the third-floor windows of the apartment where my friend Butchy Napurano had lived there is a For Rent sign.
While in Jersey, I stopped off at Holy Cross Cemetery, where my sister Susan’s casket is entombed in a mausoleum. My birth mother is also buried at Holy Cross, but outside, in the oldest part of the cemetery. I had not been to my mother’s gravesite since 1965, the year she died.
Finding my mother’s unmarked grave was difficult. How sad, I thought, for her to lie in a grave with no marker, as if she mattered to no one, as if I had never loved her. Was anyone left, other than me, who even remembered her? I made the sign of the cross, prayed the Hail Mary, and said goodbye to my mother for the last time.
When I drove out of the cemetery toward the highway, I passed several businesses selling gravestones. I turned the car around and parked in front of one of them.
“I want to order a gravestone,” I said, once inside the office. I thumbed through a catalog showing different styles of headstones. “This one,” I said, pointing to one I thought she would like. I told him her name and the dates of her birth and death. “One more thing,” I said. “Above her name, in large letters, I would like the stone to say MOTHER.”
I had now come full circle to a place of forgiveness. Erecting a monument to my mother has proven to be the final catharsis—whether for her, or for me, I’m uncertain, but it feels right.
PART 2 - Remorse
Memory is a tricky thing. I have fragmented memories of my mother that don’t involve her drinking. I remember going to a movie with her when I was twelve to see Man of a Thousand Faces, and of going to work with her on the Saturdays she waitressed at a pizza parlor years before she became bedridden. But those memories are elusive, as if their benign nature prevents me from recalling them as vividly as I do the dark times, which were far more common.
The Saturdays I spent at my mother’s apartment, her husband, Wally, cooked dinner for me. I sat in an upholstered chair next to her bed with a TV tray in front of me. When Wally served me dinner, my mother required him to wear a towel draped over his arm like a waiter in a fancy restaurant. Most Saturdays, Wally cooked spaghetti for me, al dente, the way I liked it. He was an excellent cook. By trade, he was a bread baker, but my mother told me that before they married, Wally was a bookie. He attracted her, she said, because he dressed in expensive suits and flashed a lot of money. I had a hard time envisioning Wally, the skinny man in a tee shirt, striped pajama bottoms and slippers, wearing a fancy suit.
I remember one Saturday in particular. She asked Wally to go to the store for cigarettes and to come right back. When he returned, she put her hand out. “Give me the change,” she said.
Wally dug into his pocket and gave her some coins. My mother counted them and said, “There’re ten cents missing. You stopped at a tavern for a beer, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t,” he said.
“You're lying. Get over here and let me smell your breath.”
“Ah, so what if I had one lousy beer?” Wally said.
“I don’t like you drinking. That’s what.”
“Shut yer trap,” he said, hurrying out of the room.
My mother turned to me, shaking her head. “I give him just enough money to ride the bus to and from work. If he has any more money, the somnabitch stops at a gin mill. I can always tell when he’s been drinking because his ears turn red. He made me so mad once that I picked up a knife and stabbed him in the chest.”
“No!” I couldn't believe she said what I thought she said.
“Wally!” she hollered. “Get in here and show Joan what I did to you.”
Wally walked into the room. “Whaddya want now?”
“Open your shirt and show Joan what I did to you.”
“What're you talkin' about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. Open your shirt and show her where I stabbed you.”
Wally opened his shirt, and sure enough, there was an ugly purple scar on his chest.
“She didn’t really stab you. Did she?”
“Yeah, she stabbed me.” Turning back to my mother, he said, “Can I button my shirt now?”
After he left the room, Mother told me she had nearly taken his eye out when she whipped him with the metal end of a dog leash, and another time she smashed my school picture over his head.
“The glass broke,” she said. “That’s why the picture’s not on the mantel anymore.”
I don’t know what stunned me more—the fact that she physically abused Wally or that she seemed proud of it.
That night, when Wally served my salad, he covered the lettuce with sliced tomatoes and green olives. I loved black olives, but hated the green ones. When my mother saw me picking at the salad, she said, “I sent Wally out to buy a jar of green olives, especially for you because I know they're your favorites. Right?” She aimed her eyes at me with a menacing smile on her face. “They are your favorites, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I lied, shoving an olive into my mouth. “I like the green ones best.”
I was fourteen when I stopped all contact with my mother. Several months before, our family doctor prescribed tranquilizers for me, but they didn’t always calm my anxiety. I remember three separate occasions when I flew into a rage—screaming, crying, and throwing things—frightening my stepmother, who had no clue how to handle me when this happened. On those days, Dad rushed me to our doctor, who injected me with a tranquilizer. During the ride home, I was so out of it I kept falling over and banging my head. After the third emergency visit, the doctor told my father that I had to end my relationship with my mother, or else. I do not know what “or else” meant. But I was afraid it meant I would end up in a booby hatch, a place where they lock crazy people up.
Dad told me that my mother wouldn’t believe him if he told her I didn’t want to see her anymore—it had to come directly from me. Too afraid to tell her to her face, or even to talk to her on the phone, I put it in writing. Composing the letter was difficult. I didn’t know how to tell my mother that I couldn’t see her anymore. The decision wasn’t mine, but I agreed to go along with it because I thought that not spending Saturdays with my mother would make my life easier, that maybe I wouldn’t need to take tranquilizers, and maybe I could pay attention in class. I had just graduated from elementary school and was about to enter East Side High in September. Writing the letter could wipe the slate clean, I thought, give me a fresh start, change my life for the better.
The doctor said I should not see you anymore
because it makes me nervous.
Two days later, Dad handed me a Western Union envelope. In it was a brown piece of paper with a typed message on white strips of paper.
Whatever people have told you about
me are lies-STOP- But I will abide by your
wishes-STOP- From this day forward
I will no longer be-STOP-
I cried after receiving her telegram. Even though I was the one ending the relationship, I felt that my mother had abandoned me for the second time in my life. It was as if she had said, you’re turning your back on me? Well, I’m turning mine on you.
Dad found me sobbing in my bedroom. “What does it say?” he asked. I handed the telegram to him. He read it and said, “It’s for the best.”
A few months went by, and the film, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee, was playing at The Rivoli Theater. Susan Kohner plays Sara Jane, a biracial girl who passes for white. She is ashamed of her mother and runs away from home. When her mother finds her, Sara Jane rejects her. In the film’s heart-wrenching scene, Sara Jane learns that her mother has died. Wracked with shame and grief, she sobs as she crawls after the hearse that carries her mother’s body.
I sobbed along with Sara Jane, because, in my mind, it was my mother in the hearse, and it was me crawling behind. The movie ended, and as the credits rolled, I was still crying uncontrollably. I cried all the way out of the theater, and all the way home.
If anyone had asked me why the film distressed me so much, I would not have been able to articulate an answer. But today I know my tears were about abandonment and guilt. I was crying for my mother because I had abandoned her. I thought about how I would feel if my mother died and I could never see her again.
As the years passed, I began to romanticize my mother, especially because my relationship with my stepmother was not good. I fantasized that my birth mother had quit drinking and could finally be a proper mother to me. I wondered what advice she would give me on my first date. Would she have helped me pick out a dress for my senior prom? Does she think about me and wonder what I look like now?
I had not heard a word from her in five years, and worried that she may have died. A year after graduating high school, I could stand it no longer; I had to know. I looked in the telephone directory for her husband, Walter Ryansky. The address and phone number were the same.
She answered the phone after four rings.
“Mom?” I said, my voice quivering. “This is Joan.”
“Joan?” She took a breath. “Is that really you?”
“Yes. I was wondering… can I come to see you? Maybe this Saturday?”
“Of course. Come at noon,” she said. I could hear the excitement in her voice. “I’ll have Wally meet the taxi downstairs.”
When I arrived at her apartment, Wally was downstairs, as promised. He paid the taxi driver and led me upstairs to my mother’s bedroom.
She was drunk.
For the next three years, the visits with my mother were like television reruns—she told the same stories, fabricated the same lies. Her drinking had gotten worse, and by 1965, my mother weighed just 84 pounds. She looked like a skeleton.
* * *
The bus driver honked his horn, jarring me back to reality. My mother’s stop, North 3rd Street, was coming up. I rose to pull the cord to let the driver know I was getting off, then changed my mind and sat back down. Ah, the hell with it, I thought. Just go home.
But I made the wrong decision. I should have stopped. If I hadn’t been thinking about all the bad things my mother did, if I had gotten off the bus, I may have prevented a tragedy.
Later that evening, I received a phone call from Wally. He said my mother is in Martland Hospital. “Your mother fell asleep with a lit cigarette. She has 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 80% of her body.”
PART 1 - Reflections
The switchboard was busy that day, and a pile of forms to be typed threatened to spill out of my IN box. I didn’t have time to sit on the phone with Mother while she nodded off, but I could not get her attention to tell her to hang up the phone. Her slurring that day was worse than usual—she drank too much wine or swallowed too many pills.
I worked as a receptionist for The Greater New York Mutual Insurance Company in East Orange, New Jersey. The company was adamant about no personal phone calls, except in an emergency, but I had no luck convincing my mother the ‘no personal calls rule’ applied to her. She telephoned my workplace every day—calls in which she rambled, raged or slurred. I uttered, “uh huh” or “yes” or “no.” Didn’t even need to move my lips.
My workstation was L-shaped. The reception desk faced the entrance, the phone system to my right. I wore a headset tethered to the switchboard. As calls came in, I put my mother’s open line on hold while I answered the new phone calls. That day, the connection to my mother had been open for well over an hour, but she was not talking. I called her name every so often, hoping to rouse her, but it was not until five o’clock rolled around that she stirred enough for me to tell her I was leaving work for the day.
I never lived with my birth mother. When I was a baby, my mother abandoned me and was later declared an unfit mother. I lived with my father and stepmother until I was nineteen. After a year of having been out on my own and failing miserably at adulthood, I moved back in to my father’s house. I had no car, no money, and barely enough clothes for office work. My supervisor, the president’s private secretary, had counseled me more than once to dress appropriately, causing my face, neck, and ears to become impossibly red.
I rode the bus to and from work, and on my way home that day, thoughts of my mother filled my head. I pictured her sitting up in bed, her hair in pin curls, a Confidential magazine on her lap—a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray next to a cup of wine on her nightstand. Was she even sober enough tonight to sit up, let alone read a magazine? Her incoherent phone call told me otherwise. As the bus inched its way toward Newark, I argued with myself. Should I get off at her stop and walk the four-blocks to her apartment through an iffy neighborhood? Sundown was a couple hours away, and if I stayed till after dark, I could take a cab to my father’s. Frustrated and tired, I just wanted to go straight home, but Mother sounded so out of it when I said goodbye. My stomach flipped.
My head bumped against the window as the bus made its way down Springfield Avenue, stopping at every corner to let passengers on and off. My mind wandered, drifting back in time to Saturdays spent in my mother’s company.
The first clear memory of being with my mother was when I was four years old. We stood together in the bright sun at a bus stop near Penn Station in Newark. The bus arrived, spewing exhaust fumes in our faces. Mother lifted me onto the first step and I climbed the rest of the way onto the bus. I imagine no empty seats were nearby because I jumped up to grasp a strap that hung from the roof of the bus. I was much too small to reach that high, so when the bus lurched forward, I stumbled against the legs of a woman sitting on the bench seat behind the driver. The woman smiled, scooped me into her arms, and held me on her lap.
My mother paid our fares, and then, seeing me on the woman’s lap, grabbed my arm and admonished me for trying to reach the strap. She demanded the woman put me down. “You don’t need to yell at her. She’s just a kid.”
“Mind your own business,” my mother said. She again grabbed my arm to pull me off the woman’s lap, but the woman held me closer. That’s when the shouting began—my mother’s voice louder and meaner. The bus driver yelled at my mother to be quiet, but that made her angrier and she screamed louder, arguing with both of them at once. The bus slammed to a stop. The doors hissed open, and the driver ordered my mother to get off the bus.
“Give her to me!” Spittle flew from my mother’s mouth as she yanked me from the woman's lap and dragged me to the sidewalk. When she set me down, she slapped me hard across the face. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said, her eyes drilling into mine. I flinched; afraid I would pee my pants.
I learned an important lesson that day: don’t make Mother angry.
One Saturday, a man my mother met in a tavern drove us to Olympic Park, the largest amusement park in New Jersey.
I loved trips to Olympic Park, where I could ride the ponies, eat cotton candy, or float in the Olympic-sized pool in a swimming tube.
Just inside the park's entrance were the funhouse mirrors. I skipped from mirror to mirror, fat in one, skinny in another, short legs and gigantic head in another. I wanted my mother to look into the mirrors with me, but when I turned to get her attention, she was already heading toward the picnic grove.
Patches of grass and several oak trees decorated the dirt around the picnic tables. The midway, a wide path of carnival games and concession stands, was to our left. The carousel’s calliope music and the screams of people careening down the first hill of the roller coaster excited me. I hoped my mother wasn’t planning to stay in the picnic area all afternoon.
My mother sat at a table and told “Uncle Harry” to get a pitcher of beer for them and root beer for me. My immediate impression of Harry was he was slippery, like the actors who played gangsters in the movies.
“Go play some games,” Harry said, fishing in his pocket for dimes. “Maybe you’ll win a teddy bear.”
I walked toward the carnival booths to find a game that might be easy to win. Right off, I lost two dimes on the word MOM at the spinning wheel booth, and another two dimes throwing darts at balloons. I had only three dimes left, so I skipped the booth where you knock milk bottles over, and moved to the next booth where live goldfish swam around in little round fishbowls.
“Do you want to try, little girl? Three balls for a dime.” The man running the booth wore a straw hat and juggled three ping pong balls. “If a ball lands in a bowl the goldfish is yours.”
I sorely wanted a pet of my own, preferably a dog, but my father and stepmother wouldn’t go for it. A few times, I coaxed stray dogs to follow me home, but I was not allowed to keep any of them, especially not the pregnant ones. But a goldfish was nothing like a dog, so I thought for sure I could keep it if I was lucky enough to win one. I gave the man my dime, and he gave me three ping pong balls.
The first three I tossed missed the bowls. I placed another dime down and got three more balls. No luck. I took the last dime out of my pocket, kissed it for good luck, and placed it on the counter. The first ball skimmed the edge, but the second one kerplunked right into a fishbowl.
“Look here, folks! This little lady won herself a goldfish.” I turned, hoping my mother had seen me win, but she wasn’t looking my way. The man handed the fishbowl to me.
“Thanks, Mister,” I said, clutching the bowl in two hands. I gingerly walked over to the picnic table and laid my prize in front of Mother.
“Look what I won,” I said, beaming.
“Good for you,” My mother said. “Sit down and drink your soda.”
“Can I go on the pony ride?” The ponies, my favorite in the park, were further along the midway, past the roller coaster and carousel. I loved the way the ponies smelled, and the feel of the leather saddle. I would have happily spent the entire day riding the ponies.
“Not right now,” she said.
“Not right now” meant not at all. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the opposite end of the picnic table watching my goldfish swim around the bowl, a long trail of poop floating out of its back end.
My mother picked me up in a taxi and directed the driver to drop us off at a tavern uptown. We were supposed to be shopping for a coat for me, but she wanted to stop at a tavern first. We went inside, and my mother led me to the bar where she asked the bartender for a double shot of rye with a short glass of water. I had never seen my mother drink whiskey before. In her apartment she kept gallon jugs of Christian Brothers wine in the bedroom closet. She sipped the wine out of a delicate English teacup. The few times she asked me to pour for her, she said she drank the wine for medicinal purposes.
“Don’t put the whiskey in the water,” she said to the bartender. “I'll take it on the side.” She swallowed the double shot in one gulp, then asked for another. After her third double, she drank the water. We walked back outside where a cool breeze followed us down Broad Street to Haynes Department Store.
My mother told me to pick out a trench coat. I found a pale iridescent-green one I liked. While she paid for the coat, I scanned a nearby rack of skirts. I heard shouting and spied my mother yelling at the cashier. I ducked my head, rushed through the first set of exit doors, and pressed against the wall until my mother finished paying for my coat. When she caught up with me, she made no mention of the argument. Neither did I.
We crossed Broad and headed toward Market Street to hail a cab to take me back to my father’s house. My mother walked on my left side, weaving and clinging to my arm, staggering through the people heading in the opposite direction. I hated how she clung to me, and how the other shoppers frowned at us. I kept my head down and my eyes focused on the ground. When she lost her footing and lurched forward, I grabbed her before she fell over. When I looked up, a girl from my fifth-grade class walked toward us. Her eyes opened wide, as she looked from me to my mother and back to me again. In that moment, I saw my mother through the girl’s eyes: a drunken woman holding onto her daughter for support. Shame washed over me.
When I arrived at school on Monday morning, the girl was already in the classroom. As I walked in, she jumped out of her seat and headed straight for me. In a move to avoid her, I darted across the room toward the pencil sharpener. She stood behind me while I sharpened my already sharp pencils. I turned around and faced her.
“Was that your mother I saw you with on Saturday?” she asked.
“No,” I lied, my stomach turning.
“Who was she then?”
“She was… she was just some woman.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “I think she was your mother.”
“No, she wasn’t!” I said, angry with myself for not coming up with a more believable lie.
Except for arithmetic, I enjoyed second-grade at Oliver Street School—especially art class. One day, in the spring of 1952, I cheerfully skipped most of the way home, eager for everyone’s reaction to the drawing I made of the family—me and Jimmy, mom and dad, and Baby Susan.
But when I turned on to Jefferson Street, my happiness gradually drained away as I walked past two women sitting on their front stoop.
One pointed at me with her chin and said, “There goes Eddie’s daughter.”
I smiled to myself. Everybody liked my dad.
The other woman said, “Look how skinny she is.”
The kids in the neighborhood teasingly called me Joanie Baloney Stick of Macaroni. That didn’t bother me. We all had silly names for each other.
The first woman piped up again. “She looks so sickly with those dark circles under her eyes.”
Sickly? I walked right in front of them, merely a few feet away on the sidewalk. Didn’t they realize I could hear them?
“It’s no wonder she’s sickly, with a mother like that.”
“I heard they found her drunk in an alley.”
“Not just drunk. She was laying in her own vomit.”
I stared straight ahead, pretended I hadn’t heard them, and quickened my pace. I knew my mother drank because every Saturday she would pick me up in a taxi and take me to a tavern where I’d spin around on the bar stools and swizzle pretzels in my orange soda. I never gave much thought to where I spent Saturdays with my mother. After all, I grew up living upstairs from Grandpa’s tavern, a place that felt like home to me. As a young child, I pushed my doll carriage around the barroom tables. But now, what those women said sickened me.
My house, a three-story red brick building, stood on a corner a half block away. Grandpa’s tavern took up most of the first floor. He and Grandma lived in the back rooms, where they shared a kitchen and bedroom. When Grandma needed the bathroom, she had to use the tavern’s Ladies room, and all television viewing had to be done in the bar as well. My family lived on the second-floor in a three-bedroom apartment, and my Aunt Ann and her two sons lived on the third floor.
On this day, after hearing what the women said, I stomped into the tavern and hurried through to the back kitchen. Grandma stood at the stove wearing an apron over a loose-fitting printed dress. She lowered the flame under a large pot, the contents of which smelled awful.
“What stinks?” I wrinkled my nose.
“I’m soaking beef kidneys for stew.”
I grimaced. “I don’t want any.”
“It’s not for you.” Grandma was a large woman, tall and fat—the opposite of my thin grandfather. Together, they reminded me of the nursery rhyme about skinny Jack Sprat and his fat wife.
She turned from the stove and peered at me. “What’s the matter? Did something happen?”
I nodded my head. “I need to ask you something.” I took the chance that Grandma would tell me what Dad always said I was too young to hear.
Grandma pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and sat down heavily. “What’s that in your hand?”
“It’s a picture I drew in school.”
“Let me see.” She pointed to the drawing of my father. “What’s that blue thing on his head?”
“Our parakeet, Nipper.”
Grandma smiled and placed the drawing on the table. “Tell me what’s bothering you.”
I told Grandma everything the women said. “Did they tell the truth?”
Grandma pulled the chair out next to her. “Sit down, Joanie.” She drummed her fingers on the huge wooden table. I stared at them, crooked from arthritis, not knowing that my father’s fingers would eventually look the same way, and ultimately so would my own.
I sat on the edge of the chair, rested my chin on my hands, and listened to how I came to live with my father, not my mother. Before Grandma was halfway through, I hoped the story was a fairytale about some other child, not me.
“When you were just a baby,” she began, “your mother put you in a boarding home and ran off with a man to California. We had no idea where to look for you, and when we did find you it was almost too late.”
“What do you mean?” My eyes teared up. Grandma rummaged in her apron pocket and handed me a handkerchief.
“You were so dehydrated you nearly died. Thank God, we found you when we did.”
The thought of almost dying scared me, and I wished I hadn’t questioned my grandmother after all.
All these years later, I appreciate why my father refused to tell me anything about my mother. He tried to protect me from knowing the truth so young—a seven-year-old’s self-esteem is fragile. Looking back on that talk with Grandma, I wonder why she was so forthcoming with the details—why she didn’t lie and tell me my mother was sick, not drunk, and that those women made it all up. I wish I had stopped her, said, never mind, but I couldn’t. I hated what she told me, yet I had to know.
“Your father tried to take you out of the boarding home,” she continued, “but he didn’t have legal custody, so the police had to bring your mother back from California.”
Grandma explained that the laws at the time did not allow fathers to have custody of their children unless or until the father remarried. “So, because the judge determined your mother unfit to raise you, they placed you in my care until your father married Jay.”
“I lived down here? In back of the tavern?”
“Between here and upstairs with your Aunt Ann.”
“What about Daddy?”
“He stopped in every night after work to see you.”
By the time Gram finished the telling, something inside me broke. “I should go home now,” I said, gathering the drawing I had been so proud to show. I climbed the hall stairs to the second floor and locked myself in the bathroom. I inspected my face in the mirror over the sink. Am I sickly? I frowned at the circles under my eyes and the pale complexion I had never noticed before. I looked at my arms and legs, observed for the first time how thin and angular they were.
I suddenly felt ugly. Not just outside, but inside as well. Damaged. Something unlovable and easily discarded.
In the blink of an eye, I realized how different I was from the rest of my family. My cousins, my stepbrother and half-sister, lived with their mothers. Their mothers who weren’t drunks. For the first time, I felt different from everyone else, a feeling I never had before.
I looked into the mirror again and at that moment, my mother’s shame spread over me, and I realized I never really belonged to this family—I was an outsider. I picked my drawing up from the vanity, tore it into tiny pieces, and flushed the pieces down the toilet. From that day forward, I wore my mother’s shame like a cloak.