In honor of Independence Day, I thought for the first time I would post a chapter from my memoir-in-progress. This chapter covers events that occurred 27 years ago – to the day.
A little background, since this is Chapter Eleven:
I was 14 years old. At the end of May, 1984, I had been sent from the west coast of Canada to Florida to meet my biological mother, Suzanne (39.) When I arrived, I was informed that I wasn’t there to meet her, but to live with her, her two daughters, (Angie, 11, and Rene, 7,) and Suzanne’s boyfriend, Jeff (29.)
We stood outside the tiny trailer for the last time, waiting for the neighbor, Melinda, to come pick us up and take us to the bus station in Ocala, Florida. It looked even smaller than it had the first night. I had been there just over a month and I knew for sure I wouldn’t miss it. I was looking forward to the nice, long ride on the clean and spacious Greyhound.
When we arrived at the station, Suzanne and the neighbor cried a little, as they exchanged long hugs and whispered their goodbyes. It struck me how haunted, yet relieved they both looked. I suddenly understood that Melinda had been forced into the middle of everything, and that she had to live – in her own home – with Jeff, the man who had raped me. I was overwhelmed with guilt for ‘causing’ the whole situation.
In my mind, I walked up beside them and put my hand on Melinda’s arm. “I’m so sorry, Melinda. Thank you for everything. Now you can stop hurting too.”
That’s what I would have said, had I found the courage. My private shame deepened with my inaction. I knew I would see what I had done every time I looked in the mirror. When the girls raised their hands to wave goodbye, I did too, and my forced smile felt like it might break my face.
Suzanne’s head swiveled constantly, trying to organize us all and keep us together. She seemed to be in a panic.
“Can we go sit down on the seats there?” I pointed to the three empty seats against the wall. I figured if we were out of her way, it would be easier for her.
“No! Y’all stay right here. And hold hands!”
“Okay,” I said over the girls’ chorus of ‘yes, Momma.’
I waited until Angie and Rene had each other by the hand, then grabbed Rene’s. At least this way I only have to hold one of them.
Angie let go of Rene’s hand and came around to the other side of me, grabbing my free hand.
I would have been mad at Angie, if I had the time. Suzanne swooped down on her, snatching her arm – a grip I was familiar with.
“I told you. Not. To. Move,” With every word her fingernails dug a little deeper into Angie’s arm. My anger forced my courage out.
“You told us to hold hands.”
Angie and Rene gasped in unison. Suzanne whipped her head around toward me. For a long moment our eyes locked.
“Stand here and don’t move,” she uttered through her clenched jaw.
We stood without moving. Suzanne let go of Angie and within a few minutes we were boarding our bus. The destination plate on the front read “Jacksonville.” Because I had been looking at the map the day before, I knew that Jacksonville was the wrong direction. I was worried.
Where is she taking me? No way am I asking her right now!
Most of the seats were still empty, so I climbed into one and sat by the window. If she was going to take me to parts unknown, at least I would be able to see where I was going. The girls climbed into the seat in front of mine, and started to fight – very quietly – over who got the window. When Suzanne came toward us and sat across the aisle from me, Angie got up and sat beside her. Rene shot me a winning grin over the back of her seat. I smiled, and winked at her.
I wondered why Angie would go sit beside the woman who was furious with her. I would have thought staying a safe distance would be the smarter thing, but when Angie sat down, Suzanne patted her leg and said, “Now that’s a good girl.”
Angie’s face lit up. She looked like she was gloating. I thought it might be a very long time before I would ever make sense of these girls and their mother.
A few more people climbed on the bus, and I noticed that most of them had small American flags in their hands. There were less than a dozen people on board when we left, so we all kept our spots and had our rows to ourselves. When the bus pulled out of the station, I released the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I began to feel less nervous, and more excited, but I still wasn’t sure about our direction.
Half an hour into the journey, I caught Suzanne’s eye. She seemed to have forgotten about the incident at the station, so I asked her why we were going to Jacksonville.
“It’s quicker that way.” As soon as she answered, she looked out the window again. Her head tilted in a way that made it seem she was looking at the road behind us. I wondered if she felt like I did when I got on the plane a month ago to go meet her for the first time. I thought it was a good idea not to bother her.
I turned my head and looked out my window, watching the scenery slip by. Some of the cars on the road had American flags on their antennae, and almost all the houses had flags flying.
Oh yeah, July 4th. Independence Day. I thought about living in Canada and being born in Ohio. When people asked where I was born, I usually had to apologize for being American. Most of the kids I went to school with had a quiet contempt for America. Luckily, they soon forgot where I was born, and generally I was accepted as a Canadian since I lived there most of my life.
It always made me a little sad that I was unable to show pride for my country. It made me even sadder that it seemed to me Canadians had very little national pride. The celebration surrounding the Canadian version of Independence Day was minimal compared to the United States. There were some fireworks once it got dark, and it seemed people enjoyed the day because nobody had to work. It just didn’t feel like enough to me.
I felt empty and lost, looking at all the happy people waving and celebrating. I saw big families gathered in their backyards, barbecuing and laughing. Children tossing Frisbees or playing catch with balls and gloves, playing tag and hide-and-go-seek. I didn’t understand exactly why it hurt me to see all those people, united and happy. It seemed the whole country was rejoicing. I wished I was a part of one of the parties, or at least had a flag.
When we got to Jacksonville, the streets were lined with people, waiting for their parade to begin. There seemed to be more people on the streets than there could possibly be living in the city. I wondered for a moment if we were going to be able to see the parade.
We transferred buses in Jacksonville. I checked the destination sign on the front of the bus.
Houston, Texas. Cool. I felt lighter. I wanted to go in the bus station and see if they had a store that might have a sticker of a flag but I didn’t dare ask. We climbed up the steps and into the bus and saw there were even fewer people on this one than the last, so we each picked our own window seat, and quietly waited for the bus to leave. When it roared to life, a smile spread across my face. We were finally going to go in the right direction. I strained to see all the signs as we went. It seemed important to be able to say where I’d been.
Suzanne’s scowl deepened with every mile. I studied her when she wasn’t looking at me, thinking maybe if I stared long enough, it would all suddenly make sense. I wanted to know why she took out that huge knife that night, and why she didn’t use it. Many times since the incident with Jeff I wondered the same thing. I sometimes wished she had stabbed him with it, and was angry that she hadn’t. Other times I wished she had stabbed me instead. I often thought she wished she had too.
I stopped watching her and gazed out the window. My awe at the level of national pride deepened with every town we passed through, as did my sense of loss. Inside me, there was this feeling that I was missing something every other person I could see had, and it seemed that thing was a key ingredient to being whole. We passed a parade and the marching band was playing the national anthem. When I realized I didn’t know the words, I was intensely ashamed. I told myself I would somehow learn them before anyone found me out.
Angie and Rene wound up sitting together and playing games like I-spy, but Suzanne and I kept to ourselves. The daylight dwindled, and with the darkness came fireworks. Just outside of New Orléans, incredible starbursts lit up the sky as we all watched, our faces and hands pressed to the window, a steady round of oohs and aahs came from the other passengers.
My first Independence Day, and I don’t get to be a part of it. I was glad my face was hidden, so my tears remained my own.