That’s a line I tell my students a lot. For some reason, they think I have lived in an ivory castle my whole life and have never experienced pain or hardship.
A few weeks ago, I asked my students to write personal narratives. They were to write a brief account and tell just part of their story. I got all sorts of stories. One student told me how she watched her father and uncle get shot to death while they still lived in Juarez. Another student told me about her father dying of cancer and how he hid it from her until he was on his death bed. I read a story of irony about a boy and his friend trying to “hustle” a floor wax machine and then getting in a car accident on the way to the hustle. Another girl told me about moving to America and trying to fit in with the other girls in high school. Every year I look forward to this assignment because I really enjoy learning my students’ stories. It sort of breaks the ice.
This year, a student asked me if I was going to write one. I hadn’t really thought of doing that, but I told him that I would. I’m glad I did because it gave me the chance to understand how my students felt when asked to do this assignment. A perfect stranger was asking them to open up and share something personal. For our students, this is a big deal.
I sat down and started writing my own. It was hard! I got to some parts and I got emotional and didn’t want to go on. I had to push past the memories of anger and pain and keep going. I tried to censor my words as I remembered my audience. I was also very aware of how much or little I wanted to let out. As I wrote, I wondered if my students felt the same way. I’m sure the young woman who wrote about her father’s murder choked up a few times as she sat in class and wrote her narrative. The funny thing is that I haven’t shared this with them yet. I’m afraid to completely let them in. Again, I am sure some of them may have felt this way about turning in their work to me.
So, I will share it with you. This is a short account of the turning point in my life…
I’ll never forget that day and I remember it like it was yesterday. But it wasn’t yesterday; it was twenty years ago and I was sixteen. When you’re a teenager, you think you know everything. You think that you have the world figured out, that everyone else is wrong, and no one understands you, especially your parents. I suppose that’s the beauty in growing older—you also grow wiser (or at least we like to think so). You see things the way they really happened and not just from an immature and selfish lens. And maybe it’s not that we see what really happened, but it’s our perspective that changes. I’m not saying that I regret the choice I made; I just wish I would have thought about it more and the people I affected. I hurt my family and that didn’t seem to matter at the time. Here’s what I remember:
It was a Saturday afternoon. It was winter, but we lived in Florida and it was never really cold. Our mother was at her usual spot within the house. The kitchen table was her favorite hangout. She read her cookbooks, had phone conversations, smoked cigarettes, and who knows what else. It seemed like she was always in the kitchen either cooking or hanging out by herself. Carla and I were rarely invited in there unless we were supposed to wash the dishes, help with cooking, or were getting yelled at. It was her place and we kind of learned to avoid going in there unless we had to.
On this day, I went in the kitchen to ask our mother if I could go to the beach. My friend, Heather, had just gotten a new car. Her dad was a doctor and she was one of the girls at our school with money. Our family didn’t really have much money, so it was cool to hang out with her. I knew that I‘d never get a car at sixteen (or probably ever as long as I lived with our mother), so I wanted to experience that joy through her. It was a baby blue convertible and we really wanted to take a drive to the beach. I was grounded at the time. In fact, I was grounded indefinitely at that point in time. When I hung up the phone with Heather, I knew that it was a long shot that Mom would let me go. Being the persistent young lady that I was, I figured I’d ask anyway.
“You’re just going there to meet Rob,” she yelled. This time she was actually wrong. I had no intention whatsoever in meeting him that day. I really just wanted to hang out on the beach with my girlfriend. And that was the honest to God truth. The problem was that I had become such a liar that my mother never believed anything I said, especially when it came to my social life. I was a very good liar for a really long time and then I got caught. And for that, I was grounded for the rest of my high school career.
Don’t get me wrong—I deserved the punishment. I was doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. But it was kind of odd. I mean, my mom hated Rob. I don’t think that she hated him on a personal level because she never bothered to get to know him. But why didn’t she just make me break it off with him instead of grounding me forever? I always wondered that. Maybe she was giving me a chance to be better. Maybe she sort of understood me. Or maybe she knew that it wouldn’t really work. I’d sneak out to see him anyway and she’d be back at square one.
Rob was like my kryptonite. I really don’t know how else to explain him. We fought, we argued, we were mean to each other, but yet we were drawn to each other like magnets. We’d break up one day and would be back together the next. Despite the constant drama, I loved this kid. I would have done anything for him if he asked. Now that I’m older and a mother to a daughter, these kinds of ideas and intense feelings in such a young girl freak me out! I imagine that my mother was horrified and afraid for me and this was her way of trying to maintain what was left of my innocence.
I think my mom hated him because he was nineteen. He also had facial hair, a car and a job. Did I mention the car? His car just put her over the edge. Boys with cars were off-limits because in her day, kids made out and had sex in cars. In her eyes, he was a real-life grown up preying on her sixteen year old daughter. She thought that he would lead me down a path that I was not ready for. The sad truth was that I was actually more experienced than he was.
Anyway, back to my story. The rest of the conversation with my mother was kind of a blur and I’ll re-tell it as best as I can. We argued briefly about Rob and the beach and Heather, and the overall answer was no. Of course it was no. I was grounded. Normally, I’d just deal with it. My way of dealing was to go off and pout in my room, listen to The Cure, get depressed about my life, call my boyfriend, sneak out, and repeat. This day was different.
I don’t know why this day was different. It’s not like our fight was larger than usual. I was sixteen and she was my mom. We fought all the time. After she declared that I couldn’t go to the beach, I had this strange moment of clarity. I wasn’t crying or screaming or carrying on. I simply looked at her and calmly said, “That’s it. I can’t live with you anymore. I want to go live with Dad.” My mother didn’t flinch. She basically told me to not let the door hit my ass on the way out. Then she told me I needed to call Carla and tell her to come home. She was at her BFF’s house up the street.
From the time I called Carla and the time it took her to get home (about 10 minutes), my mother and I didn’t say anything to one another. It was weird. I think I expected her to beg and plea and ask me to stay, but she never did. She was giving up. She was waving her white flag. I would like to believe that a part of her was deeply hurt and sad. But I also feel that she felt a sense of relief. I was a thorn in her side and she probably wanted me gone anyway.
Carla walked in the door and Mom told her to sit down. All three of us were sitting at the kitchen table. I looked at my sister and said, “I’m going to live with Dad.” Without a moment’s hesitation, she looked at me and said, “I’m going with you.” At that point, my mother cracked a little bit. She didn’t really say much, but I know that she was hurt. In her eyes, my sister was the baby and still had a chance. I was damaged goods. As mad as I was at her, a small part of me hoped that she would have begged and cried and made us stay. She had that right. But she never did.
About a week went by and then our dad came from Maryland to pick us up and move us out. I don’t really remember much of that week. I probably said goodbye to my friends and explained the situation. I know that I snuck out one night to meet Rob. I remember sitting in his car with him and telling him I was leaving. That was really hard and I remember it being extremely emotional. He told me he didn’t realize what he had until it was gone. In a strange way, those words made my sixteen year old heart feel better. Things at home were quiet and pretty much silent. She went her way and we went ours. We called our grandparents to tell them goodbye and they didn’t want to speak to us. Carla called our uncle and he hung up on her, but not before he told her to go to hell. Carla and I became outsiders in our own family during that week.
When our dad showed up to get us, I felt a huge sense of relief. I felt hopeful for a new start and a new life. I was scared too. I was halfway through my junior year and I’d be starting at a new school mid-year. My fears, however, were secondary and were quickly pushed back by the anxious excitement. I remember standing on the stoop outside the front door. I said, “I don’t give a shit if I never see you again.” Yep, those were my exact words. At least, that’s the way I remember it. My mom glared at me and shut the door. No hug or kiss goodbye—just an angry and hurtful last moment in what had been our home for the last ten years. I shouldn’t have said those words to her, but I was so hurt and angry and it was the truth at the time. I didn’t care if I never saw her again because I hated how she treated me. Carla and I got into Dad’s truck. We headed north and didn’t look back.
Moving away from Florida changed our lives forever. Of course, it changed the obvious things—we lived with a different set of parents and rules, went to a new school, and had to adapt to Maryland’s cold and icy winters. It also changed our relationships with everyone. Our dad and step-mom instantly took on two teenagers, which I know was not easy on them. Our grandparents and uncle in Florida NEVER spoke to us again. Our relationship with our mother has never been the same either.
If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose to leave. However, I wouldn’t have said what I said and I might have taken a little more time to make the decision. I think I did it out of spite more than anything. I wanted to hurt my mom. And it worked. On the other hand, there is a part of me that wished she would have fought for us to stay. I think that’s what I regret the most. Why didn’t she fight? Those thoughts have dominated my mind for twenty years, and the pain is still very much a part of my everyday life.
I wonder all the time what my life would have been like if we stayed. Would I have gone to college and become a teacher? Who would I be married to and what would he be like? Where would I live and what would my hobbies be? Would I eat Indian food and sushi? Would I still love the beach? Would I be the same woman in Florida that I am in Colorado? I do know that I met and fell in love with my husband and, together, we created an amazing little girl. That would have never happened had I not left. These two people make all the years of heartache and pain worth it. Isn’t it amazing how a decision that is made within a split second can change the reality of a lifetime?
It’s just a rough draft. I hope you like it. Maybe this sheds some light on your understanding of me, especially if you know me in the flesh. Or maybe you already knew how scarred I still am. Maybe some of you can relate? I feel really open and vulnerable right now (as my students did), but I feel like a part of me that needed to get out has gotten out.
Thanks for reading.