I pretended as if I were going to school. I walked to Palms Jr. High, where I was in the eighth grade, then waited five beats before turning around and going home. In the small roach-infested apartment I shared with my mom, I took my time. Packed my bags. Listened to her Motown records. Drank some of her International Delight instant coffee. I committed every last sad dumb thing to memory. I sat on the balcony and smoked cigarettes. My neighbor was there on the adjoining balcony, and as I put my cigarette out, I let him know, “I’m running away today.”
Then, I ran. Pumping my knees and arms, running alongside the bushes that lined the freeway until they connected with a bus stop. I was alive and afraid and thrilled. I looked up and down the street, cautiously tapping my foot and my fingers until the bus finally arrived. I took the number 12 Blue Bus to Westwood. My mom was at work.
Once I was on the run, I learned I’d never again enjoy the leaden hibernation that comes with a deep sleep. I would remain easily roused for the rest of my days. Meanwhile, my mother sat at home puzzled over what drove me away. I imagined her like a stoned Stepford wife sitting on my ugly bed and petting it twice a day. I heard from friends of mine on the street that she’d called them. She filed a missing person’s report, so I spent time hiding in the shadows of the nearby college town and staying with friends, about whom she knew nothing.
In the two years before I fled, the abuse had gotten worse: her need to control me, locking me in closets or the bathroom; ordering me to clean the apartment at all hours, scrubbing the carpet with nothing but toilet paper and water, scraping the crust off the rim of Mom’s toilet. She forced me to stand with one leg bent up and cocked behind me for hours. Then back again, locked inside of her closet.
When you become feral it never happens all at once. It’s a slow quiet hammering at your previously acquired social skills — until one day you finally chuck them into the woods. I was around thirteen when I first ran away. Soon I would spike eyeteeth. I would become wild to survive.
* * *
Summer of 1982, my mom and I came to Los Angeles. I was five. We slipped into her Easter yellow Audi and drove from our little commune in Pacific Grove, outside of Seaside, California, where my grandmother lived. This was the first time I remember my mom exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. She was manic. She peed in an MJB coffee can and threw it out the window as she drove.
Once we landed, things got worse: her penchant for bad men, her late nights out dancing, her need to exert absolute possession over everything that I said and did. I was told to curtsey when I met people; to introduce myself as her friend, her sister, her secretary. I’d listen for her footsteps as she came home. Eager to please, afraid of being caught sitting around, I jumped up at the click of her heels and began cleaning. Tick, tick, tick. She was the bomb.
On good days, we read advice columns in the Sunday morning paper, and made up our own responses. On one particularly bad day, I watched her get raped by her boyfriend on a matching twin bed beside me, just hours after I was sexually assaulted by his cousin in the bathroom.
* * *
After a couple of weeks on the run, I ran out of places to sleep and went back to school. It was a conscious choice to turn myself in. I got called into the counselor’s office over the loudspeaker.
My teacher commanded me from the front door of class.
“Melissa? Can you step out in the hall with us please?”
Next to my teacher stood the school principal, who looked like she was wearing a discount suit, like my mother wore. Everyone in class was alert now.
I’d been reported missing. It was actually more complicated than that, I explained, revealing the secrets about the closet, the cleaning, and the standing on one foot. I suggested they call my grandmother, who lived eight hours north of Los Angeles. But they needed to place me in the same city in which they picked me up.
On the way to the group home, I remembered all the times my mom bent over me and kissed me goodnight, whispering, “The princess is sleeping.”
Once we reached Santa Monica, looking out of the passenger side window, I saw all the homeless women — little old ladies with no one attached to them but a litter of mewing cats. They looked like they needed a mom, or a hug. Stray dogs nuzzled up against the corners of buildings as if they were the bellies of moms. Cop cars driving along, probably on their way to pick up another kid who was being taken from their mom. A drunk guy on a bus bench, about to pass out. College students sitting at the bus stop or the Foster’s Freeze. I knew they shared a different class of worries, like time, or a homework assignment, or a date.
The social worker stopped the car to let me out.
“So this is the place you’ll need to stay for the next two weeks until we can find something more permanent. There’ll be up to six other kids here — girls and boys — also waiting until they get placed somewhere else. There’s no reason to be scared.”
She dumped me at my new temporary home. It was a small white house right by the community college. I smelled the ocean breeze, fried dough and cheap malt liquor that swam in through the car windows.
There’s no reason to be scared? Why did she say that?
I stepped out of the car, noticing that kids had etched their initials into the sidewalk. There was a wooden placard that read “Stepping Stones” hanging from the porch. I looked up the cement path that led to the house. There it was, looking just like an ordinary white house.
I imagined hundreds of kids inside — gangsters, dope dealers — all leering at me. I worried about sleep. What would it be like? Could I close my eyes in a house full of strangers? How dirty were the beds? Could I sleep on sheets used by thousands of homeless kids?
I walked into the TV room, with its three scuzzy couches from the 1970s, a low coffee table topped by a plastic fishbowl filled with condoms, and a handwritten sign on the fishbowl, “A Tisket A Tasket A Condom or A Casket!” Two boys and a girl sat on the couch. The boys concentrated on the television and ignored me. The girl looked at me and winked.
“We need this room for a minute you guys,” the house manager said.
One of the boys, a tall white guy with zits, sighed. With slow, drugged movements, careful not to trip over his own pants, he got up to turn off the TV. The other boy whispered, “Fuckin’ new booty.”
I didn’t know what that meant or how to take it. A compliment on my butt? I stood there smiling stupidly.
The social worker’s mouth was coated in frosted lipstick. I stared at the chunk of white goop in the corner.
The house manager, a guy with a beard, handed me a packet.
“Here’s the rules,” he said, “I’ll go over them in a moment.”
I asked about school. The gifted magnet I had been enrolled in — could I still attend?
The guy looked at me and sighed. He said I was only going to be at this placement for a short time and, while I was there, it would be easier for me to study for the GED. That was what the other kids did.
Gone were the guidance counselors who tried to steer me in the right direction, encouraging me to reach my full potential. Gone was my mom with all her coaching — “Hahvahd, dahling. Hahvahd” — and her multiple drilling sessions, forcing me to repeat phrases over and over again while standing for hours on end, flamingo-style.
I had to bury my ambitions as I sat in my new classes. The best you could do there was graduate with your GED in hand, a check for two hundred dollars, and a brand new computer. The prize was so much smaller then what I had planned for. Back at the magnet school, I used to look over college advertisements depicting schools with sprawling green lawns and big quiet libraries. For a long time, that was my escape plan. In each of my classes I’d study harder —do better, hoping that I would one day be able to run away to one of those eastern cities and be like one of the smiling young people in the school brochures.
In my new school, I sat in class and pulled a thick paperback book off the shelf. It listed all types of careers in alphabetical order. They were actually jobs, not careers. I was to pick one and write a one-page paper about it. Some of the kids did their best to take up space on the paper by writing big or drawing a picture. My hand shaking with grief, I flipped through the pages and finally let my finger rest on secretary.
By my first month in foster care, I had beat up a dozen girls my age. The first got it for wearing my clothes. One day I walked into the living room and there she was in my shirt. It was a button-down mustard shirt made by Guess that I’d stolen on a spree with a girlfriend. She looked at me, daring me. I sized her up. She was short, her long hair sprayed with lots of Aqua Net.
“That’s my shirt.”
She smiled, “Nah it ain’t.”
“Yes it is.”
She stood up and walked over to me. “Well whatcha gonna do about it?” In my face. Close.
“I’ma ask for it back and then I’m gonna take it.”
“Come get — ”
Before she could finish her sentence I kneed her in the stomach. I got on top of her and started hitting her in the face. I remember thinking, This is it, your first fight. This is really happening. And then, my mother’s instructions still buried in there somewhere:
Always be the first to throw a punch.
My mother was thirty miles away, back in our old roach-infested apartment in Palms. It’d been a month since I’d seen her and it was going to be four more until I’d see her again. We no longer had scheduled visitations but I would see her every six months at children’s court in Monterey Park. I could never fully escape her.
* * *
If my mom were to tell you about the beginning of my wildness she might tell you about the dogs. How she once took me to an animal shelter and let me pick out a puppy. But then she ended up liking one too. I liked the round fluffy one, but she liked the sleek skinny one. His fur hugged his muscles. We got both, naming them Abby and Ann, after the advice columns we loved to read, Dear Abby and Ann Landers.
The puppies had to spend much of their days in the laundry room, because she had work and I had school. There wasn’t enough newspaper or enough food to keep them from crying. They would cry to be let out, and once when we walked them they just cried the whole time to get let back in.
Once she caught me and the neighbor boy from upstairs playing with them. The puppies scrambled to stay away from me. They were trying to hide under furniture. But I kept right on after them — I grabbed for their small little tails, but they wiggled around too much. Then I just picked them up by their soft bellies and swirled them around in circles until I got too dizzy to go on. I flung them to the side of the room — their little puppy heads smashing against the walls.
Where did I learn that violence?
I learned it from her. From the mean way her face contorted when she was upset, from the way she shook me sometimes. The next day, my mom got rid of the puppies, and when I looked at her I looked like I hated her.
But that’s not a story she likes to tell. Her favorite was when I was a toddler and she took me trick-or-treating for the first time in Okinawa. We were living on a military base. My parents were still together, though I don’t have any memory of living with my father. My mom left my dad in the middle of the night when I was just three. Years later I would find out he was living in Maryland, with a wife and two boys. He would tell me I could visit him in the summer, that he’d send me a ticket. I waited by the mailbox every day. Summer came and went. The ticket never came.
It was just she and I that night in Okinawa. According to her, I waddled up this long stone walkway to a house. I carried a pillowcase the size of my body. My nose was painted black and she drew whiskers on my cheeks. The door slowly creaked open. The air was crisp and wet in the fall. A lady peeked her head in the doorway. Her face was made up like a witch, with dark green make-up and a wart on her nose. She reached her long thin hand out with pointed fake nails and said, “Come in my pretty,” as she gestured to the inside of her house. I was so scared I dropped all my candy and came running toward my mother, fast.
She caught me in her arms. The woman was apologetic. But it was okay.
That feeling of me needing her — it’s one that we both know is long gone. She will never hold me to her like that again.
* * *
The girl in the group home grabbed my hair. Someone else grabbed my arms by the elbows and tried to drag me off of her. I kept on hitting. The kids around me were yelling, chanting to a beat, “Go, go get her!”
She hit me in the face. I shook off the person holding me back, really mad. “Nononononoonono!” I kept on screaming. The skin over my knuckles split. My eye started to swell shut. I backed up and kicked her in the face. She bit her tongue and fell back. A staff person ran in and separated us.
If I had to pinpoint the exact moment my eyeteeth spiked, this would be it. I suddenly knew the tinny taste of anger. In the distance, I could hear my prim hopes dashed and chucked into the woods. My first big fight.
I had become a savage, the way I yelled and pulled and kicked and hit. My sight became black with anger. I knew this came from somewhere else. This came from always being someone else. This came from nights of cleaning and sitting in the closet cooped up. This came from a night of being sexually assaulted in a small apartment in Hawthorne. This came from years of obedience.
I was no longer asking for permission — I was taking it. I was letting loose what was caught inside me.
* * *
At seventeen, I sought emancipation. I sat in the group home early one morning, waiting for a van. I was going to Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park to get emancipated.
Meanwhile, my mother had to take parenting classes. In the months that we had been apart, she eventually completed an anger management course, a free class for people in our low-income neighborhood. She complained to the social worker that these parents were really, really bad. I imagined them sitting in a circle confessing. I imagined that the angry people in her class bashed people’s heads in at work or tortured their children by plucking off their toenails. My mom did not do those things so she could not relate, and pulled her seat a little bit out of the circle, keeping herself at a distance from the others.
My mom also attended therapy, and allowed a social worker to come visit her apartment. The system was so overcrowded that social workers often fabricated their home visits, and notified people in advance that they were coming, so otherwise harmful and messy people could appear well kept, for positive record keeping.
The only other kid in the van was a little boy with big curly hair. He reminded me of a gerbil in his overalls and striped shirt. He looked about four years old.
“Hi!” He waved like I was far away, across the street or something, rather than coming to sit right next to him.
“I’m gonna see my mama today.”
Kids always thought all sorts of good things could happen on this day. That’s how the group homes got us to act right and straighten up.
The seats were sturdy leather, crumbs stuck in the piping. I noticed a razorblade stashed deep in the well that held my seatbelt clicker.
We drove past a high school with dolphins on the sign, along the 405 Freeway, past the beach, back onto the freeway. We stopped in two other places on the west side, where three more kids piled into the van. A fat girl who looked like she was about eight, a skinny white boy who looked about twelve, and an Asian girl who did not look at me. Each time someone boarded the van, the little boy next to me hollered out, “I’m gonna see my mom today!”
The driver of the van ignored us. He listened to oldies music and tapped his steering wheel. Whistle and tap, whistle and tap. I had a binder that held every single one of my accomplishments up until this point: sports ribbons and A papers, and the write-up of just exactly how I would be a secretary. I was going to show it to the judge.
The moment we hit the parking lot, the atmosphere changed. It was thick with agitated drivers, homeless parents, drug addicts, people afraid of losing the one person they cared about and people afraid of being disappointed. And me: I was a seventeen-year-old hoping to get emancipated.
By now it had become clear that my mom had no interest in the parenting classes. The anger management classes had been enough. She had no interest in the constant trying that was involved in parenting me. Part of me always thought that, if given the chance, I could do a better job taking care of me. This was my chance.
After the metal detector, we were taken to the children’s side — a room with six large round tables, and a carpeted area where the kids sat and watched a movie: “Home Alone.” I snuck off to the bathroom hoping to find a light and smoke a cigarette. I eyed the other teenagers.
There was a janitor, a white guy in a blue cleaning uniform. He looked older, maybe sixty, but strong, with muscled arms.
“Hey, do you know where I can smoke?” I asked.
I saw him checking me out like I was hot. Like I was the hottest, saddest thing in there.
The halls and rooms outside buzzed with chaos. People waited to be reunited or to be separated. Most of the cases continued unresolved. People waited around in their Sunday best, only to have their case continued.
She was there in the courtroom, standing across the aisle. She waved to me. The whole moment made me sad. Whatever was left of this relationship was about to be severed. I was scared that I was not strong enough to go through with it.
It was one thing for me to plot and plan in my group home along the beach somewhere, but here in the courtroom, with her across the aisle, it felt so permanent, so unfair, terrifying. She’d taught me to kick guys where it counts. She kept me close, at times too close, and then neglected me all together. Neither of us would ever get back what we needed.
If I was lucky, the most I would get was a certificate, a ceremony back at the Independent Living Program, cake, and a check for two hundred dollars. But as far as the system was concerned, I’d run out of places to go. And she had stopped fighting. Maybe she stopped because she was in grief over me running away. Maybe losing me once had been too hard, and to try again and fail would have been worse.
After the judge heard my case, I was emancipated.
She stayed sitting on her wooden bench, staring forward at the county seal. This was the end of that girl that ran to her for comfort in Okinawa. I would call her by her first name for the next twenty years. Only now am I attempting to rebuild our relationship, “mom” rolling around in my mouth like a bizarre gumdrop.
Without looking at her, I got up and faced the double doors leading to the rest of my life. I pushed them open and walked through.
* * *
Melissa Chadburn is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, SLAKE, Salon, The Rumpus and a dozen other places. She’s currently writing “A Tiny Upward Shove,” her teenage foster care narrative. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @melissachadburn. She loves your whole outfit right now.
Mardou is from Manchester, England, but now lives in St Louis, where she works on her serialized graphic novel, “Sky in Stereo.”