We were the only Latinos on the wet side of town and the only power-washed house on the block. Ma reminded Pops to rent the machine every year. While Pops blasted strips of filth off our vinyl siding, Ma was inside spraying our dog with Febreze. She fixated on scorching everything clean. Ma was self-conscious around white women in department stores, generally avoided my school events. She’d send Pops, light-skinned and affable, in her place.
What I knew about our history, I’d learned while doing laundry. In Puerto Rico, Pops had been in and out of jail, on and off the streets. A charitable old man let Ma stay rent-free in an isolated shack near the Isabela coast until he could sell the property.
“That’s where I went into labor with Steven,” she’d said. Alone that night, Ma had to climb the narrow and unkempt path into town, that’s how she got the scars on her feet, her thin chanclas catching broken glass. All I could imagine were hungry predators, man and animal, watching my mother as she groped in blind search of safety. Ma’s only worry had been to keep Steven from being born on the ground and left there to be found screaming and covered in ants, as she had been.
Steven ended up with his own problems, but Ma and Pops were doing it right this time, with me. “God gave us a second chance,” she’d said.
They came to Newark, where I was born. Pops got clean and saved enough money to buy a narrow bungalow on the wet side, densely-populated and so named for its vulnerability to the Sandy Hook Bay.
When I got mad at Pops, she’d say, “You got it good, Miriam. Your father used to be a different man.” Meaning, things were not bad now, even with Steven dropping out of high school when I was eleven and disappearing for days, weeks at a time. That’s the way it was with Steven, in and out, occasional paranormal visits.
White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business.
When we were younger, he’d race me to wherever Ma was in the house. “Whoever gets to her first,” he’d say, “is loved the most.” We’d hold hands and go scouting the town’s debris for plastic soda bottles, the labels of which we’d pull off for reward points toward branded fanny-packs, boom-boxes, mountain bikes. We never won anything, but it felt productive to keep searching, imagining potential in our streets.
Just a few weeks back, I’d sat with him on the couch. “What are you watching?” I asked. He stared at the blank TV; an earlier storm had knocked out the cable. The screen reflected the sunlight behind us and cast our silhouettes like witnesses who didn’t want to be identified.
We sat close. I knew Steven heard me, but he didn’t reply, and the next day Steven was gone, along with our TV.
* * *
I’d been helping Ma with laundry and was about to toss a white tee in with my darks when she snatched the shirt out of my hands, nearly shrieking. “You don’t want Leann’s family thinking you’re like the white trash around here. All their whites looking dirty.”
White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business. I did not tell her Leann Pacholski’s white training bra was mop-water gray.
“Go ask your father what he wants for dinner,” Ma said. They weren’t speaking—they’d been fighting about kicking Steven out for good—but Ma’s work ethic endured and our meals were always prepared, resentment expressed with overcooked rice. The problem was, Pops wasn’t speaking to me either. I’d misplaced his favorite hairbrush, failed to put it back exactly as I found it, to the right of the kitchen sink.
I found him rooting through the backyard shed, a glossy new structure out of place in our cramped backyard. Pops wasn’t a man with hobbies—only emotions as forbidden to me as his personal belongings—but for a homeowner, the shed was a necessary upgrade.
“Ma wants to know what you want for dinner. I’m going to a barbecue at the Pacholskis today.”
“My friend, Leann. There’s gonna be a lot of people. Ma said I could go.”
Pops considered it without looking at me. Maybe Ma was wrong when she told me in secret that Pops’s love had conditions. Maybe his love was constant but withheld until we were good again.
“Tell Ma to take you,” he said. “And she can pick something up on the way back. I’m changing the locks today.” He’d never met the Pacholskis, didn’t even ask me for their number, but changing the locks had to do with Steven. I took advantage of that and ran back to Ma.
* * *
Leann also lived on the wet side, and we attended the same day camp for middle schoolers at a park down the road. I sat at the arts and crafts table most of the time, where I wouldn’t be expected to imitate everyone’s enthusiasm for life, disappoint myself and God when I couldn’t. An older boy once teased Leann for latch-hooking with me instead of playing kickball, and she shot back, “Why don’t you suck my dick?”
Leann’s father, Roy, was popular for his Hulk Hogan impressions—he tied back his thick blonde hair and had a stocky build. He was always first to pick his kid up from day camp. The crunching of the gravel as his faded blue sedan pulled in signaled to the rest of us that we’d finally be home again—our energy and optimism revived, fights were forgiven, amends made. Usually, Roy would grab a juice box or soda from the backseat and toss it through his window while Leann headed toward his car. She caught it each time with both hands, as casual as if she’d been tossed a beer from a cooler, this routine like a commercial for Hawaiian Punch.
At the barbecue, Leann and I role-played fantastic scenarios, taking turns as witches or maiden victims. I’d met Leann’s mother, Sheryl, first thing, an unexpectedly bubbly woman in tight acid-wash shorts. “We have soda, do you want one? Let me get you one,” she’d said to me, but then got distracted by arriving guests. Now she was on the patio, having a drink for every drink she served and raising the volume on Bon Jovi, yelling about being ready to party.
“Looks like you’re already partying,” Roy yelled over her.
Once Leann’s cousins came around, she and her younger sister, Kat, kicked up dust tearing off for other games. I walked the edges of their yard looking for bottles, mostly finding half-buried Newports.
In chase, Leann leapt over a muddy Barbie jeep like a track hurdle. Her foot, bare and suspended, reminded me of when Ma’s crashed through the stoop of my own dollhouse, a wooden toy Victorian I’d been painting on the sidewalk path leading to our front door. She’d been chasing Steven around the house and he’d come out the front door before her, tripping and smacking the ground before me. He looked at me, the first in a long time, an acknowledgement that felt like apology. Then he was off and down the street before I could tell him he was loved, which maybe would have made him stay.
Ma came after him and the stoop of my dollhouse shattered with a croak I heard over her yelling “Coño carajo!” and falling to her already scarred-feet. One of many times I sat in my closet, tight and dark as a womb, solace when our house sometimes offered none.
He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left.
There was one bottle. Lying face up and waiting in the sun. Without noticing it uncapped and a quarter full, I grabbed it, tore the label off, a rare 4-points, a clover. Only then did I feel the warm liquid seeping through my white Keds, a soda stain more unforgivable than grass or soil.
I’d never crossed a yard so expansive on the wet side—enough distance for an oak tree, a tire swing even. But the inside of the Palchoski house seemed unprepared for company; the floors were cloudy with grime. Upstairs, black mold lined their bathroom sink, where I’d taken off my shoe to run a low, cold stream over the toe. Something about their home, I thought, might lead to a deeper, inaccessible truth that would explain what made me so uncomfortable around my peers—that people could be this dirty and poor and still have more than we did.
A crash downstairs, Roy shouting: “Get the fuck up, Sheryl!”
Halfway down the kitchen stairs, I saw Sheryl on the kitchen floor next to an upturned folding table of snacks, laughing and sticking out her tongue to lick potato chips off her face with as much delight as a kid in snow.
“Nice, Sher. In front of the girls,” Roy said, softer, cleaning up around her. At the back door, Leann and Kat watched on with the spooked bewilderment of feral children.
People outside began to leave, and I followed the girls upstairs. In their room, Leann slumped on the edge of her bed. “Mom and Dad are gonna get a divorce.”
“No they aren’t,” Kat whined, kneeling down at a pile of dolls tangled up and maimed. She separated them until she came up with one that was whole.
“They told you that?” I asked.
“Yup,” Leann said. “They’re just waiting for us to graduate.”
Kat began to cry, wiping pale streaks through the dirt on her face. Leann looked out the window with a troubled squint, as if she’d seen everything.
I sat next to her, my chance to show I was a good friend. “Doesn’t that make you sad?”
“No,” she said. “They hate each other.”
Still, I couldn’t relate, though I’d only seen my parents kiss once, quickly. A cozy Friday night when I playfully asked if they loved each other and begged them to prove it.
Leann’s dad stood awkwardly at the door, portable phone in hand. “You wanna give your parents a call, Miriam?”
“Sure,” I said, taking the phone and dialing, but no one answered.
“No problem,” Roy said, nodding toward the girls. “We’ll take you home.”
* * *
Leann and I sat in the backseat of Roy’s car and Kat took the front. Kat kept crying and asking what happened. “Is Mommy okay?”
Roy ignored her as he grappled with his seatbelt, growing irritated.
“Are you guys gonna get a divorce?”
Roy stopped. “Who told you that?” he asked.
“Shut up, idiot,” Leann said, reaching up to pinch her sister, hard enough to make her squeal.
Roy twisted around as if going for a juice box. Instead, his hand clamped over Leann’s skinny upper thigh so tightly she buckled over, shrieking.
“What, you don’t like that?” Roy shouted. His fingertips and her skin went bloodless as he tightened his grip, emitting a low, satisfied growl. Leann lost her voice, all agony, but her mouth still hung open as a line of drool dipped down, touched his hairy knuckles.
Kat screamed at Roy to stop, batting his arm with the futility of a child’s fist until he finally released Leann and started his engine.
The ride back was silent. We kept our faces to the windows, all ashamed in our own ways.
Once I told my parents about the Pacholskis, they’d never let me back. In fact, I looked forward to the conversation, asking them innocent questions about what I’d seen, like when I asked about Steven, where he went, what he was doing. They were always quick to soothe, so I stopped wanting honest answers, only comfort, something Leann clearly didn’t have with a drunk mother, cruel father, divorce.
We reached my block and Roy stopped short. I was about to tell him I lived further when I saw the disturbance up ahead—two cop cars in front of my house, an officer trying to calm Ma, who was frantic, crying. Another talked to Pops, who stood calm and justified.
Steven was being pushed up against a car, hands behind his back, skinnier than I’d ever seen him. But he still looked like Pops, and Pops saw himself in Steven, too. He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left. Pops couldn’t see, as I saw now, that what was left was catastrophe in the past tense, wreckage that still needed cleaning.
Neighbors formed clusters on the broken sidewalks, eager to know more. My vision blurred as I realized I didn’t want to leave their car, that I was scared.
“Someone’s getting arrested!” Kat said, leaning over the dashboard.
“What’s going on?” Leann asked, straining to look. A bruise was already forming on her thigh, but it could have been from any childish accident.
Roy put the car in park and twisted around again with an opportunity to be gentle, concerned.
“I’d better let you out here, hon,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you and Leann to see each other again.”