The winter wind whipped at my body the moment I got off the school bus. It was a cold winter afternoon in upstate New York. I wrapped my thin jacket around me and walked faster than normal towards the apartment I shared with my dad. He worked the second shift and wouldn’t be home until 11:30 at night. Sometimes I was sleeping when he came in, but other times I waited up.
“Expecting a flood?” The girl’s voice came from behind, jolting me to attention. I prayed she didn't say anything else to me. Just let me make it home.
I thought her name was Stephanie. She lived in the building diagonal to me. The second time, she said it along with several of her friends in a sing-song sentence.
“Expecting a flooooood?”
I looked down at the blue pants I was wearing. They ended right above my ankles. I knew I shouldn’t have worn them that day, but everything else had been dirty. Hopefully, the group of kids wouldn’t notice the small hole in the front just below my knee. I walked as fast as I could without running. If I ran, I knew the teasing would get worse.
I heard them counting one… two… three…
“EXPECTING A FLOOD?” They all shouted in unison, then broke up into giggles.
I turned the corner towards the apartment and away from them, reaching for my key to unlock the front door. Once inside, I felt my face get hot as adrenaline rushed through me, still ready to fight even though the threat was gone. The apartment was quiet as usual, and I quickly turned on the TV for some background noise. Peeking out the front window, I saw the group of the other middle schoolers dissipate as they each entered their homes.
There was no way I could go back to eighth grade the next day. What if I wore something wrong or did something stupid and they came at me again? I couldn’t take another chance. Now I was afraid of those kids and yet furious they made me visible when all I wanted to do was disappear.
I’d have to convince my dad I was sick. Then I could spend all day watching soap operas on ABC and huddling up on the couch. I wouldn’t have to worry about any kid who wanted to be mean or laugh at me. Besides, it was just middle school and I’d make up the work. I always did on the other days I was too anxious to go to school.
It was rare that I spoke to anyone at school. Instead, I hurried through the halls all hunched over from class to class thinking nobody could see me. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there with all the rich kids. My clothes were a mess, but I never asked my dad for new ones. I knew he couldn’t afford them, and I didn’t want him to think it costs too much to raise me. He truly wished he could give me everything my heart desired, and he felt ashamed when he couldn’t. I didn’t mind. I was happy to be living with him no matter how poor we were.
My mother was 1000 miles away in Florida then. She left to stay with my uncle in the Sunshine State after having relationship issues, mental illness, and alcohol troubles. Her plan was to start her life over. I didn’t miss her much, having witnessed her midlife crisis firsthand. Even if my dad and I were poor, at least we were stable. There was no mom who gave drunken car rides in the middle of the night or threw temper tantrums or passed out in front of the toilet. I was glad those days were over.
I didn’t go back to school for the rest of the week. Every time my dad would bring it up, I’d cry and beg him to let me stay home. He had trouble saying no to me, and I took advantage of it at every opportunity. I hated lying to my dad about feeling sick, but it was better than going out into a world where people could be cruel and it was hard to breathe.
My mother didn’t call often, but she called a few months after the “flood” incident. I didn’t tell her about it. There was nothing she could have done.
“I want you to visit me in Florida next week,” she said. “I already talked to your dad, and he said you could. Uncle John is paying for your ticket.”
I didn’t know what to say. Was my mother better all of a sudden? Could she still be drinking? I wouldn’t want to be around her if she wasn’t stable, but the idea of missing school appealed to me so much I put the thought aside. I’d never been to Florida. My mom said it was 75 degrees and sunny that day. It sounded wonderful to escape the cold for a while.
My mother picked me up at the airport seven days later, and I barely recognized her with her dark tanned skin. She smiled as she approached me with her arms outstretched, and I gave her a timid hug back. I wasn’t ready to trust her yet. She brought me back to my Uncle John’s house. He had a beautiful tropical-style house with a giant pool out back with palm trees and flowers all around it.
“I can’t believe I get to swim in February,” I said after I got my bathing suit on. “This is awesome!”
My mother smiled.
Later that day, my mother sat down next to me in my uncle’s living room. I’d been watching MTV and eating popcorn while still wearing my bathing suit and enjoying my vacation.
“What do you think about living in Florida?” she asked me.
I looked down at the floor and shrugged my shoulders. The vacation was one thing, but I wasn’t ready to live with my mother again. The way she acted back in New York made me feel scared and anxious all the time. I still had bad dreams of her yelling at me and stumbling drunk around our old apartment. What if we went through the same hell all over again?
“Well,” my mom continued, “your dad wants you to come.”
I shot her a dirty look, refusing to believe my father would say such a thing. He loved me more than anybody and would never want us to be apart.
My mother then handed me a letter. “He wrote me this,” she said.
I took the paper from her, recognizing my father’s handwriting.
I’m sorry, but I just can’t afford to raise Glenna anymore…”
There was more, but tears blurred my eyes and made it hard to read. My dad wanted to send me back to my mother, even after knowing all the terrible things she did. How could he not understand?
Without saying a word, I went back outside and jumped in the pool, sinking underneath the crystal blue water so nobody could talk to me. When I surfaced, I realized my mother hadn’t followed along. The Florida sun was still beating down, but inside I felt cold and numb. What was going to happen to me?
I confronted my father about the letter when I returned to New York. He admitted he wrote it and that it was true.
“Besides,” he added, “a girl needs her mother. You and I barely see each other. When I’m home, you’re at school, and when I’m at work, you’re at home alone.”
I reached over and hugged my dad. It couldn’t have been easy for him, struggling to keep us afloat all this time. I didn’t blame him, but he was wrong about one thing. I honestly didn’t need my mother anymore.
The thought of saying goodbye to my father loomed large in my mind. He was the only person who ever loved me unconditionally. When we were together, I felt like I was worth something. I didn’t have to hide who I really was from him.
I arrived in Florida for good in the spring of 1982. By some miracle, I managed to pass the eighth grade, so I started high school a few weeks later. True to her word, my mother wasn’t drinking or acting out anymore, but the resentment between us would last the rest of our lives. My biggest regret is not making amends with her before she died last year. She was a single mom with an unruly teenager, and she handled it as well as she could even with her issues. I have to give her credit.
My father moved to Florida shortly after I did, getting a job in a hotel where they paid him with room and board. I never lived with him again, but some of my best weekends as a teenager were spent sunning by the hotel pool, eating French bread pizzas with him, and playing Black Jack for hours on end. He was my best friend, and I was thrilled to have him in my life any way I could get him.
Sometimes I think about the girl I used to be. I feel sorry for her and the shaking bundle of anxiety she carried everywhere she went. It makes me wish there was more talk about mental illness in those days and that going to a psychiatrist wasn’t shameful. My anxiety plagued me to the point where I couldn’t function in school or at home. I couldn’t explain it to anybody because I didn’t know what to call it. It made me different and weird, and middle school can be a vicious place that takes no prisoners.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and meet the little girl I used to be. The girl was constantly shaking and suffering in a world that was mostly unkind. I’d hold her hand to release her pent-up anxiety. I’d talk with her about the terror that lived inside her. When she said she hated herself, I’d share all the love that I had for both of us and tell her she was beautiful. I’d tell her not to hide and instead show the world how beautiful she was. I’d be her safe place forever.