Once Upon A Time – An “Un”-Fairytale
Once upon a time, when I was a medium-sized girl (I don’t say little, because I wasn’t a young child and I don’t say big, because I wasn’t a teenager), my parents got divorced. As I adjusted to the changes and welcomed myself to the other 65% of the population, or whatever the divorce statistic was in the ’90s, I became accustomed to spending half the week with my father in the house I’d grown up in and half the week with my mother in the small apartment she’d rented one town over. I kind of didn’t mind the fact that they were divorced; both my parents were a lot happier and there wasn’t always a thick tension hanging over everybody anymore. And, bless my eternally optimistic heart, I even though it it was kind of cool to have two homes, because that meant two bedrooms to decorate, eight walls to ruin with my posters and all kinds of new adventures in a new town (for half the week, anyways). I’m pretty sure my mother didn’t quite see it that way, going from our family home in the stereotypically suburban neighborhood to an apartment and working her ass off day in and day out at a job that she was far less than passionate about to provide for us, but we made the best of things.
There were very few kids in this apartment complex even though it was right across the street from the junior high school that I was one summer away from attending. I consciously made the choice myself to transition from the school district that I’d been a part of since kindergarten ever since I promised one of my friends to not tell anyone that my parents were getting divorced and the next day felt more alone than I ever had in my whole life because I had suddenly become some sort of social pariah from a “broken home”. All of the kids thought I was weird, their parents (all of whom were together and oh-so-happy…Twelve Xanaxs and three martinis later) looked at me with that sort of pitiful, sympathetic look that I hate getting from strangers and the only genuine friend I had was moving to another state that summer.
The last day of school, I took the bus home and sat by myself in the front seat, staring out the window. I was still apprehensive about my decision and it wasn’t until I overheard a conversation from the very seat behind me between two girls in my class that something clicked in my brain and I knew I was never looking back. They didn’t know I was sitting there and were giggling over the end of the year class contests that the school did and that I pray to every God and Goddess out there have since been abolished. You know, vote for Prettiest Girl, Most Handsome Boy, Nicest Person, Most Athletic, etc.
“I wonder why they didn’t hand out the awards for Prettiest Girl and Most Handsome Boy?” Girl 1 asked in a whisper.
“Well, you know, Ms. Teacher said that they weren’t going to hand those out because everybody got at least one vote so it was too split to tell, but I know for a fact that she was just being nice, you know, she had to say that,” Girl 2, apparently with “insider” knowledge revealed behind a giggle.
“Really?” Girl 1 mused. “Then everybody should’ve gotten a certificate!” Apparently, she was pretty heartbroken about not getting an award for Prettiest Girl but not nearly as much as I was when I heard the next words:
“Well, she had to say that because every girl really did get a vote for Prettiest. Well, except Kelly and Ashley. I mean, those two, who would ever vote for them?” Girl 1 laughed.
To this day, I don’t remember who my 5th grade ugly-girl-counterpart was or if she was even in my class or another class, because all I could feel was blood rushing to my head and my heart pounding so hard that I thought I was going to suffocate. Luckily, we were close to my bus stop and I kept blinking and swallowing, forcing the tears back down my throat, so I wouldn’t cry until I got off of that awful, smelly bus.
I couldn’t run down the wide steps to the sidewalk fast enough and as I continued running towards my house, this time with tears blurring my vision behind my thick glasses, I knew it was full speed forward and I would never, ever look back. I was going to do things, amazing things, that these decade-away-from-being-desperate-housewives would only ever dream of. I would explore far and wide, go to fantastic places all over the world, and I would do so many cool things that everybody on the planet would fall in love with me and those girls would sit wide-eyed and wonder how I got to be so fabulous. And I would never, ever go to school with them again. I knew I made the right decision in switching schools and even if, come fall at the new school, I was alone and ignored forever, that would be better than sitting on that bus and listening to those girls talk about how I would never be told I was pretty.
So, I digress – There weren’t many kids that lived at the apartment complex my mom and I were staying at. It was a nice enough place, and I don’t know for sure because it’s the only apartment I’ve ever lived in, but there was a constant air of transiency there. Not transiency, as in creepy people pushing shopping carts that cuss to themselves and sleep in the stairwells, but transiency as in nearly everybody there was going through some sort of divorce and it was their temporary stomping ground until they built themselves back up to the person they once were and moved on to bigger and better things once more. I didn’t mind – I was lonely and it was nice to be around other lonely souls.
The kids that did live there when we did, though, were a rag-tag bunch. I wasn’t used to having actual friends, or people that weren’t just being nice to me as a joke, so I stayed quiet when they invited me out to the courtyards to play and rarely came out of my shell. Instead, I sat, smiled, observed and watched with wide eyes. These weren’t like the kids in my old hoity-toity neighborhood; all of their parents were recently divorced or just going through one and none of them tried to be perfect.
Sal was the biggest and oldest, he was far more overweight than a 14-year old should’ve been but he wore his girth proudly. There were always whisperings of him associating with gang members, but I never really believed it. I think that he used his weight and a good scowl on his face to scare off anybody that he didn’t want to get close to, which was pretty much everybody. They made up the rest on their own. Besides, he was a metal-head and always wore Metallica t-shirts and we all know that no good gang member admits that they listen to Metallica, much less sports their gear.
Theresa was my age (11 – 12), except she was going on 23. She was probably the loneliest of us all. She lived with her mother, her younger sister (who had a different father) and their pet bunny, who always smelled. Their apartment was always ridiculously filthy and her mom was never home, so that was always the inevitable gathering spot when the weather was bad. Theresa seemed to have skipped right from infancy to thinking she was a full-blown adult woman, totally leaving out childhood and adolescence. She always had different boyfriends and she went further than any of the other girls. I’d watch in awe as she’d help one of her boyfriends with his math homework at the cluttered kitchen table and reward him with a shoulder massage or deep French kiss when he figured out a problem. I’d wonder where the hell she got that from and how she learned all these totally adult moves…Then I’d remember her mother. She’d watched what she’d been shown all her life. I remember one day, after school, we snuck into her mother’s bedroom and she showed me, taking up a full DRAWER in her dresser, all of the engagement rings her mother had had. They were all there, all of those diamond sparklers in varying sizes, shapes, cuts and colors, neatly tucked away in their small boxes like a secret stash of prizes or something.
Jason was quiet and soft-spoken, and the constant object of Theresa’s affections. He had pretty bad acne, but he was shy and unassuming. He was so quiet, in fact, that I don’t remember much about him except for the fact that he once threw up a popsicle in the stairwell of his building because Theresa had said something really funny and he had just taken a bite of the icy treat. Caught between a swallow, a laugh and some sort of cough, he started upchucking melted red, white and blue ice everywhere. It just made us all laugh harder.
Gianna, I quickly learned, was a secret Italian princess. She lived in the apartment next door to my mom’s with her mother and we became fast friends. We got walkie-talkies and would knock twice on our conjoined bedroom wall at night to alert the other to turn her device on so we could laugh and gossip in the dark. I quickly tired of her, however, because her mom spoiled her rotten. And she knew it. And she really liked to show it off. All the time. After a few months, I was tired of commenting on something I’d want or something cool I’d see in a commercial or magazine and then, the very next night, she’d have it sitting in her bedroom, where she’d brag about it for hours. I’m still incredibly salty over the neon blue jelly phone AND the fact that she one-upped me by not just getting the phone, but her own private line in her bedroom for it! Grrr…
Okay, again, I digress – Contrary to popular opinion, a bunch of bored, rag-tag kids from different neighborhoods and products of divorced parents don’t always mean trouble for the neighborhood. We were quite harmless, actually – There was a big, wooden gazebo in the middle of the courtyard, so we’d sit in there and talk, play games, chase each other around the grassy courtyard, eat popsicles in the stairwells and find whatever innocent (except for maybe Theresa…) fun we could get our hands on. I felt more accepted by them in one summer than I did in an entire lifetime thus far spent with my old friends in the old neighborhood. There were no fronts, nobody tried to be anything they weren’t – We were who we were and we dealt with it, whether that was a Metallica-loving wannabe gang-banger, a spoiled European princess, shy and awkward, a girl trying to be a woman or just me – An ugly pre-teen who dove into books, film and music to fill her loneliness and was stronger than I ever gave her credit for.
One warm, summer night, it was just me and Theresa hanging out in the courtyard. The dark velvet of the night was intoxicating and neither of us were eager to go back “home”. We lay, sprawled out in the grass, and stared up at the stars. I never knew there were so many up there. There were crickets somewhere behind us and the air was warm and smooth.
“You’re so lucky you get to see your dad often,” Theresa commented wistfully. “You see him every weekend, that’s really cool.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, I like doing things with him. We go out to eat, go to movies a lot.”
“My dad lives far away,” She went on after a moment. “I only see him once a year, but I look forward to it all the time. I just wish I saw him more.”
“Where does he live?” I asked cautiously, feeling as though we might be good enough friends that I could inquire.
“He has a big farm in Indiana,” She replied. “He has a really pretty wife too. They have all kinds of animals; dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows that they raise.”
I tried to picture the wide, open space with all the animals and the happy, loving couple in my mind. I wondered what her father looked like, because she didn’t look anything like her mom. I think I ended up just trying to picture Theresa as a boy and started giggling at the thought.
“That’s cool,” I replied, catching my breath. “Do you think you’d ever want to live with him full-time?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. My mom says I can’t.” At that, she rolled half-over and leaned her head on an elbow, looking at me seriously. “If you could live anywhere in the whole world, and I mean the ENTIRE globe, where would you go? And what would you want to do when you get there?”
I studied the stars and thought about my answer. When you’re flat on your back in the grass, fingers knotted behind your head and looking up at the vast, dark sky with hundreds of tiny, twinkling lights blinking back at you, the world suddenly seems to open up. In that moment, it was huge to me and reached far beyond what I’d ever known. My mind filled with possibilities – I could go anywhere, I could do anything, there was so much out there to see and do and all I had to do was grow up a little bit first. Maybe, I even thought hopefully, I wasn’t really ugly, maybe I just needed to get to know myself more to be myself.
Theresa took my long silence as being unsure. She steam-rolled ahead with her own answer. “I would buy a big farm next to my daddy’s and have all kinds of animals. I would adopt every animal that’s ever been left behind or kicked to the curb. I’d go to every shelter and take every dog and cat and let them all live on my land. Nobody would be confined, we’d all be happy and free.” After a moment, she laughed and continued. “And I’d take Jason and probably Brad Pitt with me too.”
I laughed along with her, glancing at her sideways. She was staring at the stars as she spoke, her eyes lit up with a sliver of moon reflecting in her pupils, as though she really believed that one day she would make it happen. Fine, I could dream too. Getting into the spirit of it, I let my mind wander again to all of the possibilities my future could hold. I’d been to Venice Beach with my mom earlier that summer and that seemed like a pretty cool place. I could go there, everybody seemed sunny and happy and there were lots of good music and art. I couldn’t think of any particular boy that I wanted to bring with and decided that maybe just me, my books, my C.D.s and my kitten (at the time), Sly, could go and still be pretty damn happy.
Another light breeze blew over us and I was about to open my mouth with my answer when she stood quickly and dusted off her shorts. “Okay, I have to go,” She sighed. “My mom is going to drive me to visit my dad tomorrow so I have to get up early and I probably won’t be back until really late.”
I guess I was mildly surprised, but Northwest Indiana was only about two hours from us, so it didn’t seem too absurd. Reluctantly, I stood too. The warm air was relaxing and I knew I’d never get tired of looking at the stars, but I knew I had to be getting back as well. The last thing I wanted was my mom to send out a search party and embarrass me in front of the few new friends I had. Friends were precious and mine so far seemed to come and go pretty quickly, I didn’t want to risk these ones I’d just barely gotten to know.
It wasn’t until three days later when I was waiting in the foyer of her mom’s apartment so we could go swimming that I accidentally happened upon the truth. The swimming pool in the complex was small but served its purpose and, as I waited for her to get her bikini on and her towel ready, I absent-mindedly flipped through one of many old magazines, their covers dotted with sticky pop circles and pages wrinkled and dog-eared, sitting on the side table. There was a small, time-stamped business card beneath the magazine, but as I looked closer, I realized that it wasn’t a business card at all. It was a visitor’s pass to the Cook County Jail and it was dated for exactly three days prior.
At first, I was utterly confused and not so quick on the uptake. I wondered who they knew in the jail and why they didn’t go see her dad like they’d planned……….Oh.
I quickly replaced the magazine on top of the visitor’s pass and forced a smile as she emerged from her shared bedroom with her little sister moments later, towel in hand and bikini covering far too little skin on her barely-teenaged body to be considered legal, decent or any other adjectives that sprang to mind.
“Ready to go?” She asked brightly.
I nodded and decided right then, looking at her cheerful face, that I wasn’t going to say anything to her, or anybody else. “Yeah, let’s go hit the water.”
We talked a few times after that at random about her dad’s farm and his beautiful wife, and all of their animals and travels. A year later, her mother, in record time, met, began dating, moved in with (bringing of course Theresa and her sister) and got engaged to a short, chubby man that drank a lot of beer and watched a lot of Nascar. In the days before cell phones, fast internet, text messaging and social networking, it didn’t take long for us to fall out of touch.
Sometimes I wonder what ever happened to her, but then sometimes I decide that maybe it’s better off not knowing. I think of her as the young dreamer with the moon in her eyes and I’d like to think that she really did get that farm and those animals with all the land and the wide, open spaces for her big personality and even bigger heart. I’d like to think that she still lays on her back sometimes and looks up at the stars, and this time when she does, she doesn’t think about the “What ifs” or the “Should haves”. I know the twelve-year old in me still does, and this time around, I don’t.