Fly Away Page 46

A baby, he said, and suddenly I was imagining you: ten fingers, ten toes, a mop of black hair. In an instant, I fashioned a dream life for the three of us, but then he was quiet and my doubt set in. How could he want me like that, me, who was so damaged?

I can go away, I said into the silence. To … wherever girls go. When I come back—

No. This is our baby, he said fiercely. We’ll be a family.

I had never loved anyone as much as I loved him then.

On that orange-scented afternoon, we started to plan. I knew I couldn’t tell my parents. If they could lock me up and give away my child, I knew they’d do it. And I didn’t think twice about quitting school, either. I was no scholar and I hadn’t even begun to realize how big the world could be or how long a life could last. I was a girl of my time. I wanted to be a wife and mother.

We would leave right after his graduation. He was alone, essentially, too. His mother had died at his birth; he’d come to Southern California with an uncle, after his father deserted the family. They were migrant workers. Rafe wanted something more for himself and we were naïve enough to think we could find it together.

On the date we’d chosen for our escape, I was crazy nervous. At dinner, I couldn’t get a word out. The last thing I wanted was dessert; I couldn’t choke down even a bite of my mother’s Ritz-cracker pie.

What’s wrong with her, Ma? my dad said, frowning at me through the blue smoke of his cigarette.

Homework, I mumbled, then shot to my feet. I washed and dried the dishes while my father smoked his cigarette in between bites of pie and my mother tended to some needlework sampler with a sentimental saying. I didn’t hear them talk to each other, which was hardly unusual. And really, my heart was pounding so loudly I’m not sure I could have heard their voices anyway.

I made sure everything was done perfectly, up to my father’s exacting standards, before I hung the gingham dish towel over the stove’s metal handle. By then, my parents had moved into the living room. They sat in their respective favorite seats—Dad in the olive-green mohair club chair with a fringe hem, and Mom at one end of the cream-colored sofa. Behind them both, bark cloth drapes in an abstract olive green, white, and red pattern framed the view of the neighbor’s house.

I have a lot of homework to do tonight, I said, standing at the edge of the room like a penitent, my hands gripping together, my shoulders hunched. I was trying so hard to be good. I didn’t want to anger my father even the slightest bit.

You’d best go then, he said, lighting one cigarette with another.

I rushed out of the room. Behind my closed door, I waited for them to turn off the lights, pacing, my packed suitcase stowed under the bed.

Every second felt like an hour. Through the thin walls, I heard Danny Thomas’s voice singing something on the television, and from under the door I smelled my father’s cigarette smoke.

At nine-fifteen, I heard them turn off the TV and lock up the house. I waited another twenty minutes, long enough for my mom to slather Noxzema on her face and pin up her hair and cover it in a net.

I was scared when I positioned pillows and stuffed animals in my bed and pulled the covers up over them. I dressed carefully in the dark. It was June, and even in Southern California it could get chilly at night. I put on a boldly colored plaid skirt and a black button-up sweater with three-quarter sleeves. I teased my hair and pulled it back in a ponytail and I opened my door.

The hallway was quiet and dark. No light shone from beneath my parents’ bedroom door.

I crept through the hallway, scared by the sound of my own footsteps on the carpeting. I kept expecting to be stopped, grabbed, hit, every step, but no one followed me and no lights came on. At the back door, with its crisscross faux-barn exterior, I paused and looked back at the house.

I swore silently that I would never come back. Then I turned, saw the headlights waiting at the end of the cul-de-sac, and I ran toward my future.

* * *

It wasn’t until we burned through the first tank of gas that the fear set in. What would we do? How would we live, really? I was seventeen years old and pregnant, with no high school diploma and no job skills. Rafe was eighteen, with no family or money to fall back on. In the end, the money we had took us only as far as Northern California. Rafe did the only thing he knew. He worked on one farm after another, picking whatever was in season. We lived in tents or shacks or cabins. Whatever we could find.

I remember always being tired and broke and dusty and lonely. He wouldn’t let me work in my condition, and I didn’t mind. Instead, I stayed in whatever hovel we’d found and tried to make it homey. We meant to get married. At first I wasn’t old enough, and later, after I’d turned eighteen, the world had begun to change around us, and it swept us into the chaos. We told ourselves that no piece of paper mattered to people in love.

We were happy. I remember that. I loved your father. Even when we both started to change, I hung on.

The day you were born—in a tent in a field in Salinas, by the way—I felt empowered and overwhelmed by love. We named you Tallulah because we knew you would be extraordinary, and Rose because your pink skin was the softest, sweetest thing I’d ever touched.

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I did love you. I do.

But something happened to me when you were born. I started having nightmares about my father. Nowadays, someone would tell a young mother about postpartum depression, but not back then, at least not in a migrant camp in Salinas. In our cramped, dusty little tent, I would wake in the middle of the night, screaming. The scars of my cigarette burns seemed to throb in pain. Sometimes I thought I saw them glowing through my clothes. Rafe couldn’t understand.

I started to remember how crazy felt and to feel that way again. It scared me so badly I shut up and just tried to be good. But Rafe didn’t want me to be good, to be quiet; he kept grabbing me, shaking me, begging me to tell him what was wrong. One night, when he was crazed with worry, we started fighting. Our first real fight. He wanted something from me I couldn’t give. He pulled away from me, or I pushed him away. I can’t remember. Anyway, he stormed out, and in his absence I fell apart. I knew I’d been bad, that I’d lost him, that he’d never really loved me—how could he? When he finally came home you were naked and screaming and you’d pooped all over the floor, and I just sat there, dazed, staring at you. He called me crazy and I … snapped. I slapped him in the face as hard as I could.

It was awful. The police were called. They put handcuffs on Rafe and took him away and made me give them my driver’s license. That was 1962, remember. I was an adult, a mother, but they called my father. In those days, my mother didn’t even have her own credit card. My father said hold me and they did.

I sat in a stinky dirty cell in the jail for hours. Long enough for Rafe to be fingerprinted and booked for assault (I was a white girl, remember). Some sour-faced woman from social services took you away from me, clucking at how dirty you were. I should have been screaming for you, reaching out my empty arms, demanding my child’s return. But I sat there, weighed down by a despair so bleak I couldn’t breathe, by a sorrow that seemed impossible to dispel. I was crazy. I knew that now.

How long was I there? I still don’t know. In the morning I tried to tell the police I’d lied about Rafe hitting me, but they didn’t care. They kept me locked up “for my own safety” until my father came for me.

* * *

The hospital they sent me to the second time was much worse than the first. I should have screamed and fought and clawed to get away. I don’t know why I didn’t. I just stood by my mother as she led me up the stone steps and into a building that smelled like death and rubbing alcohol and old urine.

Dorothy ran away and had a baby and beat up her boyfriend. Now she won’t speak.

That was when I started to lose big chunks of time, somewhere in that white, smelly building with the barred-and-chicken-wired windows.

I have memories of that place, but I can’t talk about them. Still. After all this time. The gist of it is this: medications. Elavil for depression, chloral hydrate for sleep, something I can’t remember for anxiety. And electroshock and ice baths … and … anyway, they said it was for my own good. I knew better at first, but Thorazine turned me into a zombie; light began to hurt my eyes and my skin dried up and started to wrinkle, and my face swelled. When I found the energy to get up and look in the mirror, I knew they were right. I was sick and needed help. They only wanted to make me better. All I had to do to get better was be a good girl again. Stop swearing and fighting and lying about my father and demanding my child.

I was there for two years.

* * *

I left the hospital a different person. Drained. That’s the best way I can put it. I thought I had known fear before those doors banged shut behind me, before I’d learned to see the sky through metal bars and chicken wire, but I was wrong in that. When I came out, my memory was shaky—time leapt away from me sometimes and there were chunks of my life I couldn’t remember.

What I remembered was love. It was the slimmest of strands, my memory of it, but it kept me alive in there. I clung to my memories in the dark, fingering them like a rosary. He loves me. I told myself this over and over. I’m not alone.

And there was you.

I kept an image of you in my mind through all of it—your pink cheeks and chocolate brown eyes—Rafe’s eyes—and the way you launched forward when you were trying to crawl.

When they let me out—finally—I shuffled out of the hospital ward in clothes that I didn’t recognize as my own.

My mother stood waiting for me, her gloved hands holding the strap of her purse. She wore a staid brown short-sleeve dress with a tiny white belt at her waist. Her hair looked like a swim cap. She pursed her lips and peered at me through her cat’s-eye glasses.

Are you better now?

The question exhausted me, but I held that tiredness in. I am. How’s Tallulah?

My mother gave a little sigh of displeasure and I knew I wasn’t supposed to ask. We’ve told everyone she’s our niece. They know we went to court to get custody, so don’t say anything.

You took her away from me?

Look at you. Your father was right. You have no business raising a child.

My father, was all I said, but it was enough. My mother’s hackles rose up.

Don’t start that again. She took me by the arm and led me out of the hospital and down the steps and into a new sky-blue Chevrolet Impala. All I could think about was saving you from that terrible house where he lived, but I knew I would have to be smart. If I screwed up again, they might find a way to make sure I never gave them trouble again. I’d seen how they did it, in those places back then. The bald heads and scars of surgery; the blank eyes and shuffling feet of patients who drooled and peed where they stood.

The drive home took more than two hours. I remember watching the freeway pass beside me and realizing that I didn’t know this city at all. My parents lived in the shadow of this weird new thing called a Space Needle that looked like an alien ship stuck on top of a tower. I don’t remember a single word passing between us until we pulled into the garage.

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