by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
This is an essay I wrote for Rachel Thompson’s blog, which first ran on June 15, 2013.
By the time I was ten, I’d mastered the art of lying and stealing.
No matter how hard I try, I can never recall exactly why I decided one day, somewhere around the age of five, to scoop up the paper packets on my mother’s kitchen table and jam a fork into their flat sides. They called them “bindles.” They were folded like tiny origami books my Oma made, often from glossy magazine paper, but sometimes just white butcher paper like we drew on in kindergarten class. They appeared and disappeared as though by magic. But it was a black magic. Their presence meant the mental absence of whomever was in possession. When unfurled they released a white powder, almost pretty, like dry snow. This powder traveled to a person’s nose through a little straw. I remember the sound of the sniff, the head tossed back, the way my mother’s boyfriend *Tom’s black mustache would catch a leftover drift, like dandruff. It made them talk really fast. Grind their teeth together. Pace around our tiny apartment. And once, it even made Tom rise in the middle of the night from their shared bed, wander into my room and pee on the floor.
I have no memory of the actual stabbing, me with fork in hand. But I do recall the frantic search through our apartment, feet slapping angrily down the tight corridor between the kitchen and the room where my mother and he slept. I remember hunkering in my own tiny room feeling something tucked inside my sock. Something that bit the edges of my flesh. I would work magic too—I would make the bindles disappear.
Eventually they found the stabbed one in the trash. Tom cornered me. “Honey, this is something that costs a lot of money. It’s not yours to touch.” My mother hovered behind him with dark eyes that drilled a shame in me so deep it felt like I was sitting in mud, in shit. Now, thirty-four years removed from that scene, I know she felt guilty. I know she understood there was an act of rage, of defiance against them. At the time, I simply wanted it all to go away: The bindles, the glazy look in her eyes when she couldn’t get up from the bed even when I was hungry, and the constant lateness in getting me to school.
Cocaine, marijuana, hashish, heroin, pills and alcohol. I don’t recall seeing most of these substances, but in stories my parents have shared with me, I’ve come to imagine them as omni-present, like little glimmering dark beads tucked away between the every day trappings of our lives, replenishing themselves on demand. And yet, of course, they had to be procured. And sometimes, when the need pinned my mother to her bed, or caused sweat to soak through her dress, she’d have to take me with her. We’d fling ourselves into the rattly little Volkswagen bug, the one with the cloth flap that had to be held down when we hit the freeway or it would thwap thwap annoyingly overhead.
I remember doorways and motel beds. Entrances and exits. Dim lights and low whispers. Things tapped out of jars and papers, sliding from one person to the next. I remember grandmotherly ladies, and fatherly men with hearty laughs, often patting me on the head. We slid into a shadow world where real life carried on, but in shades of grey and soft tones, where often times the only thing I could hear was the beating of my heart.
Around the age of eight, I made a friend name Tanya. She had stringy blonde hair, and wiry limbs. In that way of kids who have secrets to hide, we bonded over Barbies while listening to Billy Idol and Cindy Lauper in her room while our parents conducted their transactions in the front of the hotel Tanya’s parents owned.
One night, Tanya cooked up a plan that seemed quite bulletproof.
“We won’t get caught,” she insisted. “They’ll blame it on one of the residents.”
Our plan required several stages. The first was to make a list of all the glorious things we would buy when our plan was complete. I wanted Barbie clothes and scented lip gloss, a Strawberry Shortcake doll and a whole new wardrobe from Esprit. We wrote these in pencil on lined binder paper, high on gummy worms and Fritos. And then, well into the part of night that quickly becomes morning, we tiptoed out to the till.
From a metal box, Tanya retrieved scads and scads of twenty dollar bills, which she shoved into the plastic bag in my hands. I wasn’t fantastic at math but I knew there were hundreds of dollars there. Maybe one thousand. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen money like this; it usually sat in neatly rubber banded stacks in my father’s house, so meticulously counted that the one time I’d slipped a single five dollar bill out, he’d paced the house, wondering aloud how he could have counted so wrong.
We, too, counted our loot a dozen times that night. Two hundred. Four hundred. Seven hundred dollars and some change. We divvied it up and tucked it into our little purses, and crashed hard to sleep.
Sunday rolled over me like a gentle wave, but when I went to school on Monday I was three hundred and fifty dollars heavier, trying to figure out how I would get to the mall and bring home my bounty without my parents’ noticing. That wasn’t entirely difficult, seeing as they were often working, distracted, prostrate.
But I couldn’t sit still in class. Sweat beaded up at the backs of my knees. My school bag felt enormous and heavy, pulsing with that stolen money. When recess came, and I saw Tanya’s father, a man of WWF proportions, and a ZZ Top beard, striding across the playground, what I felt was not fear, but relief. I all but ran to him. For a man who made a living selling drugs and rooms by the hour, he was surprisingly tender and kind.
He hugged me, though he wasn’t smiling. “I think you know why I’m here.” I gave it back without having spent a dime, but that was the end of my friendship with Tanya.
Though I eventually curbed my urge to steal, it would be many more years before I could break the habit of lying, both to myself and to others, the urge to keep a curtain drawn across the dark secrets of my life a much harder one to break.
This was a very hard essay to write because my mother went on to become sober when I was 20 and made amends to me. I love her and am proud of her efforts at sobriety, and do not write this essay from a place of blame, but of learning how to tell the truth about my life.