*Content Warning: This piece contains references to addiction and domestic abuse, which may be triggering to some.*
One of My Earlier Memories: She was laying on the couch in her living room, half awake. Her homes always smelled like cigarettes, and I never drank out of the cups because she pulled them out of the sink piled with dirty dishes, they never got washed and who knew how old they were. Her husband came downstairs in his underwear smoking something with an unfamiliar smell to me, met someone at the door, and went back upstairs. “Don’t tell anyone you saw that,” she said. I didn’t even know what I saw.
Those Years: I asked her if I could play in her clothes. She always had two or three pop-up wardrobes in her basement full of clothes, I thought they were like life size Barbie clothes. I would put on the skin tight bikinis, the see through Playboy shirts, the clear plastic heels, and dance around like I was a superstar. I found this clear jelly paste that had glitter in it and put it all over my body. I told her I was going to put on a runway show for her. She watched and always said “You go girl.” I remember thinking the clothes seemed really dirty and kind of smelled funny, but I never questioned her. “Don’t tell anyone I let you put those clothes on,” she said. I didn’t understand why, but of course I didn’t tell, and continued to dance in them every time I was at her house.
That Summer: We were outside enjoying one of her frequent block parties in her yard. She moved into a new house every six months or so, but they were always in similar neighborhoods, and the people always seemed to know each other. The music was so loud, the blow up pool was out, the ground was covered in broken glass, cigarette butts and beer. I heard her husband yelling, and realized the entire party was watching her and her husband yell at each other. Saying the most disgusting words. But these were words I always heard at her house, since I was a toddler, used in almost every sentence. He threw her 100lb frame as hard as his 250+ lb body could, into the wooden wall, and I watched her body slam, shake, and bounce off of the wall. She started crying but no one at the party did anything. I remember feeling so scared, and later she said “don’t tell anyone what you saw today.”
A Few Years Later: We were sitting on the porch. There were always a lot of neighbors around, always a lot of people on the porch smoking cigarettes and talking. I think it was summertime. She pulled out a pill bottle and put some in a man’s hand, he handed her some cash. She looked over her shoulder at me, and said “don’t tell anyone you saw that.”
Her Dad’s Trailer: We could go to her dad’s trailer sometimes. He lived in a trailer park. I remember not liking going there for some intuitive reason. The inside was always covered with beer cans, all over the floor. ALL over the floor, and trash, a lot of trash. He swore a lot, and would yell at her. He always smelled like alcohol and the trailer did too. We would never stay long. “Don’t tell anyone I brought you here,” she said.
Her Mom: I wasn’t “allowed” to go around her mom. That was a no-no. I was too young to understand why, but of course she would take me to visit her anyways. Her mom lived in a bedroom at her grandparents’ home. She was only in her forties, but I remember every time I saw her, she looked old and ghostly. We would go up to her room, she was always sleeping, and she would struggle to sit up from bed and moved really slowly. The room was always filled with haze and she didn’t move much. She was nice but I was afraid of her. I knew I didn’t want to touch her. “Don’t tell anyone I take you to see her,” she said.
Her Family: They always lived with random people. Certain family members would be homeless, or having babies and needed rooms. Sometimes houses felt so packed, I would watch three or four people with babies pile out of a single bedroom, late in the day (no one woke up before noon). Her husband’s little brother was having another baby, they already had one kid, and she was pregnant with her second. They all needed a place to live. His girlfriend came downstairs late in the afternoon and was immediately screaming at my mom. Words like “whore,” “bitch” were regular. My mom yelled it right back to her. I thought the girl was acting strange, she seemed… strange. And as I caught a glimpse of her face before she headed back upstairs, I saw her teeth were black and rotting. It wasn’t unusual for her family and friends to have unique teeth, but I thought these seemed extreme. I whispered to my mom about it. “Who is she? Why does she act like that? What’s wrong with her teeth?” She said “They do a lot of meth, that’s why she’s so crazy. *insert rant about “how she’s going to have a meth baby* Don’t tell anyone about her, they won’t live here long.”
I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. Wear press on acrylic nails, play in her dark 90’s makeup and wear it out, wear tiny mini skirts, and high heels from Walmart under the age of ten. I was allowed to hang out with neighbor kids that I just met and go wherever we wanted within neighborhood’s that are now zoned off on government maps as the highest gang violence, homicide, and drug traffic neighborhoods in the city. Eating Taco Bell, drinking Mountain Dew, and watching dirty sex scenes in movies were mild and regular. She would tell me if she was strip-dancing on or dancing off. I asked her what it was like and she said “it’s no big deal I just go, ‘boopity bop'” and staged a dance scene. I can still reenact the dance moves she did. A little twist and hip pop.
One Christmas: I hadn’t seen her in a year. I was so excited, I had gotten her a Christmas present. I found out where she was staying through a string of different people, and texted her through one of her friend’s phones. She said “come over in the morning. I’ll be up and ready.” I arrived at the house late morning, it wasn’t her home, it was a relative of her’s, and when I got there a woman said “she’s still sleeping.” She was sleeping in the middle of the living room floor with blankets, the rest of the room was filled corner to corner with junk. It was really dark, I walked over and shook her softly trying to wake her up. I’ll never forget how scary it was, to have to shake her so many times until she slightly acknowledged my touch. She was weaker than I had ever seen her before, and she couldn’t open her eyes more than a sliver. She tried to talk to me but her voice was so weak she was barely getting whispers out. I kissed her, put the presents in the kitchen, and left. I told myself “I won’t tell anybody what I just saw.”