À La Carte: Safe House
“Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless, including more than 1.6 million children. Even a seemingly minor event can trigger a catastrophic outcome and catapult a family onto the streets.”
The National Center on Family Homelessness
December in Philadelphia had closed in fast, with a sudden shift from the delightful days of autumn to the callous chill of winter. It was the kind of cold that our coats couldn’t protect us from—we had spent far too much time outside. But this is where most of my possessions were sold: out on the sidewalk.
“The posters are five dollars each. Both the Manet and Monet are in perfect condition.”
Each day I had propped my household goods on the stone slabs across from the busiest coffee shop in the neighborhood. I knew the baristas, most of whom had provided the affection that I fed on as a new mother.
“Oh, those, no, my mistake…I can’t sell those. I’m sorry…the Rumi and Rilke are not for sale, but those cookbooks are fifty cents each.”
It was here where I finally had made some new friends, having only recently moved into town. These women were also new moms who were at home with their babies and half-awake after another sleepless night.
“Aren’t those chairs amazing? They’re antique. Fifty-bucks for the pair.”
These women were all seeking company that could validate their post-partum thoughts of how motherhood had changed their identity. I wondered whether their spouses had withdrawn their love as much as mine had. Watching neighbors go in and out of the coffee shop, I hoped that they would buy something from my sale on their way home.
* * *
The girls took long naps and stayed warm in the van while I hustled my goods, but I had to get them back to the house before sunset in order to fix up the little camp. A streetlight beamed in through the naked windows, and luckily there was one rooted directly in front of the old row house or the darkness of winter skies would have been too overbearing. Sawdust, the chaotic compilation of boxes, toppled furniture, tools, tangled extension cords, dust, and more dust surrounded us as the sharp air seeped in through the gaps in the window frames. Our bodies intermingled beneath the covers, and my daughters snuggled so close that we breathed as one body. Lying between the past and the uncertain future, it had been five days sleeping here, but it was our last night in the old row house.
My children suckled their designated breast, Ruby on the right and Jade on the left. It was my daughters’ ritual while falling asleep, their bellies filled and their energy expired after having to work for the warm milk they loved. The girls were just over a year apart, nestled into the hollows under my shoulders, oblivious to the precarious situation we were in. When they dropped their heads and were sleeping like stones, I carefully slipped from between them and stood up, wrapping an extra blanket around my back. Stretching my spine, I checked on my minivan parked a floor below on the street outside.
A fresh layer of snow had covered the dark green roof that protected the only belongings we had left. Swallowing the brittle fact of homelessness, and moving from one shelter to another, I gave away everything that I couldn’t sell. Watching the snowflakes, I thought to myself, “Nothing else is as white; perhaps they signify a new start.” Yet I was left with my mind’s stirring a strange concoction of loss and liberation, because everything was gone—everything, including the girls’ father and any hope of reassembling the future I had imagined.
* * *
Just after dawn, we hit the highway, going southbound before the traffic got insane. Looking out the window, I reminisced about the first warm day after a harsh winter when I had taken Ruby out for her initial spring stroll. I recalled myself as a joyful new mother, pushing the carriage, still hopeful that my young family would thrive. How lovely the warm sun had caressed my chest that day as I cruised along wearing a halter top that I had just crocheted to match Ruby’s hat. I was the sort of woman who loved to expose the perfect curve of her abdomen, certain that the fetus could feel the same soft sun as I did while walking to mommy-and-me yoga class. When we arrived at the cottage where mommies coddled with their babies and assembled in a circle, I began my deep breathing. As I tickled Ruby, who rolled between my legs, I imagined the new baby girl inside me, at peace, growing all her parts, and let her know that she was already thoroughly loved.
* * *
After hitting traffic in DC but then passing quickly through Virginia and the Carolinas, we neared Savannah, Georgia, and I began to picture the beach, eager for the sun and the shaking off of frost. We stopped for the night at a cheap motel on a mossy, tree-lined street. The bed’s slope, the petite coffee maker, and the thin, hard, dry soap, wrapped like a package, were perfect for the night. We could jump, tickle, and play. Forgetting all else, we began to laugh. Sometimes laughter begets itself, stretching time, pushing the past back and the future forward as if it were its own form of procreation when silliness reigns supreme and you wonder why you ever cried. When joy is so fulfilling, its expanse pushes out the excess fluid from your body, and you just have to pee, or weep, or both. You weep that you have wept before, and you weep still because you have finally stopped weeping. That makes only more laughter, and you look at each other realizing that you are each laughing for a different reason, and that makes the moment funnier. Then the laughter sounds funnier because one of you heaves, another makes a snort, and then you can’t catch your breath. It’s running to the utopia of the beach faster than you can catch it. It is wild and free and has nobody to answer to, and that makes you laugh and cry simultaneously until you taste the salt of your tears dripping from the gutter above your upper lip. Descending notes of laughter and several sheets of tissue, signify the beginning of the end. But one of only four channels on the TV fills the room with “doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo. There is a fifth dimension…,” and again the imminent tsunami called Hilarity draws near and begins to suck you in. You remind yourself that you can take it; these elongated happy moments, these images and sounds, have been a long time coming. Afterward, you will ache in your belly, maybe even in your jaw. Here it comes, all over again. Hold on. You can take it.
* * *
We set out early the next day—the monotony of highway travel always made my babies sleep. How far could four wheels take us? Only one hundred ninety-two miles until we reached Miami, but there was a cluster of recent memories invading my mind as I drove:
It was our third day in the hospital and we were set to go home. Jason hadn’t come back to see us since Jade was born. She was perfect and ate well. My newborn slept on my supple stomach. It grumbled and she twitched; I picked up the phone and decided not to call him again. Instead, I ordered another Philly cheesesteak from the cafeteria. Jade had a full head of blond hair, which was a shocker, but her face looked just like his to me. I never did assume his last name. He never actually proposed, though he introduced me to his tattoo clients as his wife when he was working. I think a pregnant wife just got him bigger tips. But my regret diminished as I admired the face of this miniature miracle in my arms, so peaceful as if she were recalling what it was like in heaven. Then she let out a wide and heavy exhalation, larger than her tiny frame would be expected to yield, as if to say, “Hey, Mama, don’t forget: you have me.”
The lease to our apartment was about to expire, and Jade was only seven months old. It was not up for renewal because of the demolition that was rapidly approaching. Jason had not returned from Louisiana after having been summoned for yet another beguiling family drama. The stories of medical fraud, house burning, baby stealing, bloody fights, insurance scams, shots fired, his ex-wife demanding money, slander in need of squelching, and always another funeral were a tangle of tales that I couldn’t keep straight. He called apologizing that he couldn’t send me any money. He was broke. With no family in town, I was forced to pack up the entire houseful of stuff, find somewhere to store it, and appeal to a local shelter. Weeks became months. Jade began walking, and Ruby talking. While I read another rejection letter from the housing authority, I watched them play among the tombstones on the side of the church where we were staying. Each evening, we were due inside for curfew at 7 p.m., ate supper, and then went to our cots. I would lie down, a horizontal pillar of comfort, my babies’ well-being my only purpose, before we all had to vacate at 7 a.m., rain or shine.
I often sat with my babies in a church basement around a table set for five or six. After I put on my shawl and gave my breast to my baby, I was shot the same offended looks that I got every night from the other moms I roomed with. I was “the crazy white girl” who breastfed that no one in the shelter really wanted to talk to. So I was destined to have the same conversation every evening with the volunteers who served us, and to answer the same questions:
“So, how old are your children?”
“Ruby is two, and Jade is almost a year.”
“Where is your husband?”
“Well, he abandoned us.”
“Have you found a job yet?”
“Actually, I was in college until…”
Then a middle-aged woman in a floral dress sat across from me with a pinched smile. She had confirmed with her friends that none of them knew me and that I must be one of them. “Would you like a brownie?” she asked as my oldest reached for one. Jade dropped my keys and then the invisible veil fell over my face—the veil that I hoped would hide my stare into nothingness. I was an outcast in the shelter, as well as in my country. Then I felt the extreme tickle of my baby fondling my nipple, and I remembered that so did millions of other women.
Our time limit in the shelter was almost up, but it was the stomach flu that ended our stay there. We were vomiting all night long, both girls were inconsolable, and exhaustion was killing me. It was pouring rain outside. Jade was crying on the floor, and Ruby was pulling at my coat. I was bug-eyed and bloodshot, stuffing a garbage bag with sickening sheets when a social worker picked up my youngest and said, “It appears that you need help, and I mean you look unfit as a mother. I am going to recommend a program to help your children receive proper care.” And she started dialing her phone; never before had a fear so cold consumed me. Stiffened at the thought of having my children taken away, I managed to reach for my daughter, who dove out of the woman’s arms and into mine.
As panic and illness threatened my composure, I methodically told her, “I have a sack of filthy, wet sheets that I need to take to the laundromat.” And balancing Jade on my hip, I hitched numerous straps over my shoulders. I stuffed bags with toys and blankets, certain not to miss the diapers, wipes, towels, toothbrushes, coats, sippy cups, soap, and snacks. In a fury, weak and knowing I looked senseless; I took Ruby’s hand and headed for the van. While standing in the rain and fastening the girls in their car seats, I thought to ask that nice guy from the coffee shop if we could stay at the extra house he bought, the one not ready to live in.
* * *
The girls woke up. I stopped and slipped in my favorite West African CD. A smile spread across my face when the female choruses came in—so smooth and so joyful. Ours was the only car in the parking lot. The moon was bright, and we were far enough south that it was warm at three or four in the morning. Ruby took off, ecstatic that she was allowed to move as she pleased. Jade and my second fingers tightly linked as Jade gathered her equilibrium and released her grip, becoming a silhouette in the neon glare.
The next morning, I stopped at a store in Miami to shop for the essentials we needed for camping by the beach. I had raised more than 2,000 dollars from my sales to live on for as long as it would last. I had an air mattress and a cooler I had saved. I also had some cookware and towels, rope and masking tape, buckets and flashlights, clothes, blankets, and a port-a-potty. I decided to buy a kerosene grill, a nice tent, a lantern, food, and ice. Rolling down the Seven Mile Highway, we reached the Florida Keys, which was as far south as we could get.
The state parks were booked solid. Traversing bridge after bridge that connected small islands, and habitat for tiny Key deer, we passed stores that sold Key lime pie and conch. We found vacancies at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge which was packed with gigantic RVs and dozens of snow birds from the north: Michigan, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Maine. This merry crew of retirees was busy decorating the social hall for the approaching Christmas Party. After entering this tropical wonderland, and discovering the list of activities, I was convinced to book a site. There were crafts for kids; the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Claus on a fishing boat, a play the children were invited to participate in; and a dance featuring contests in the jitterbug, the two-step, and the twist. The humble cashier handed over a shiny new key to the main entrance; I thought to myself, “Wow, we’ve made it. People were happy here: happy to be warm, happy to treat each other like family, happy to see the children.” The ladies assured me that more youngsters would be arriving from up north—they came every year at Christmastime—and that there was a playground next to the showers. I was in no hurry to get to work on the campsite, so I let the girls loose on the dance floor while holiday songs played, and someone gave me a cup of heavily spiked eggnog. I almost wept. It was the bourbon and brandy in it that tasted so good.
Strings of lights were wrapped like candy cane stripes on every pole and palm on the lot. A picnic table stood under the large butterfly bush on our campsite, providing a strong elevated surface for the girls to stand on while decorating. My instincts had been in high gear during my sidewalk sales—I had not sold my ornaments. As the girls and I were hanging them up our neighbor appeared from around the bush and introduced herself with some tinsel to share.
“Hello, welcome to the fishing lodge. My name is June. My husband’s just coming back from the boat. Harold is his name. He’s been growing his beard out for a long time to play Santa Claus, and Christmas Eve is only a day away.” June gave Ruby and Jade two tiny stuffed penguins wearing elf hats. “You girls made it just in time.” Harold poked his head out carrying something.
“A fish! Mommy! A fish!” Ruby called out.
“Fish!” Jade mimicked. The shimmer of the wet scales coating this big and beautiful fish had the sheen of a shiny knife.
“Well, hellooooooooo! I hope you girls are hungry. We sure have a lot of fish to go around.” And the white of his beard stunned me with its beauty. I had been wrong about the snow. There is something as white. Harold looked me over, and I thought he was admiring my vintage polka-dot dress. He confidently said, “I would bet a million bucks you are a dancer.”
“Well, my sweet June injured her hip not long ago, though she has been the reigning jitterbug champion for a few years running, and I’m looking for a partner. I’d be tickled if you’d accompany me.”
“I’m in. Hi, I’m Angie,” I said shaking his hand. It had been too long since I’d felt the “click” of being in the right place at the right time.
“Mommy! Look!” And a small deer squarely stepped onto our site, approaching us completely unafraid.
June got some lettuce and gave some to the girls. “Don’t be frightened, children. You can feed them. They’re very gentle.”
“Mommy! He’s eating!” Ruby said as the deer’s wet nose moistened her fingers and the lettuce slid in its mouth and crunched.
June asked, “Have you seen the beach yet? It’s just around the bend there.”
I took the girls, one in each hand, and we walked slowly down the path. Once through the tall, inviting grass, Ruby took off flying across the shallowest of shorelines. For a long way, the cove appeared as if the ocean were just one huge puddle. It was so quiet that the pitter-patter of Ruby’s footsteps, and her giddy laughter, sounded like they were out of a utopian dream. The heat penetrated my sundress, loosening my pale skin underneath. I finally relaxed. I sat on a rock, with Jade at my feet playing with the dry sand. Ruby fell into my lap, breathing quickly and beaming from her jog. Hugging my daughters, I looked up and over the calm and vast waters, watching the bluest of skies. I wondered what it would be like to live here. Maybe I could find a job, here in a slice of paradise.
* * *
Night noises inhabited the tropical air: rhythmic sounds mixed with the random snaps of the fire I fed. With fresh fish in my belly and the sun soaked in my skin, I felt restored. With the babes asleep in the tent, I watched the smoke drift straight up until it disappeared. With each stick tossed into the heart of the flames, I considered what to do next:
I could drive across the country and park in front of the beige stucco house where I grew up. Surely, I would nick my big toe on the crack in the slanted walkway as I had often done as a child. I would pass by the bushes that looked like tumbleweeds rooted in the ground. The metallic knock on the ridged screen door would beckon my mother to greet us. She wouldn’t have changed a thing in that beige house, with beige carpet and beige paint, and I would have to listen to how my ex had reminded her too much of my father, who couldn’t grow accustomed to life with a family either.
Jade grumbled a request for a midnight feeding. I went into the tent, kissed her soft hair, and placed a breast within her reach. Lilting between being awake and dozing off, I became absorbed in the beats of the night. As the sounds grew louder and the rhythms became increasingly intricate, the feeling of relief over took me and memory shrouded my mind. I recalled the summer evening at the shelter when fireflies had lit up the field next to the church. After we’d been told to come inside, someone scolded Ruby for running indoors. Ruby stopped, turned around, and looked at me as if to say, “But Mama, they don’t know that I’m free.”