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rolled back in rhythm, unsentimentally washing away our work. Then we’d run back toward the water and create it all anew. We didn’t know it then, but that persistence would become the metaphor to predict how we’d all choose to live our lives. No accomplishment has taken place without trial, and no growth could have occurred without unwavering love. This is the story of how it took a community to raise a child… and how that child used her future to give hope back.

BITTEN BONES Suffolk County, Long Island, New York Summer 1980 The area where we live sits between the shadows of the cocaine-fueled, glitzy Hamptons estates and New York City’s gritty, disco party culture. Songs like Devo’s “Whip It” and Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” blast through the car courtesy of WABC Musicradio 77, AM. Gas is leaded and the air is filthy. Long Island lacks a decent public transportation system— to get anywhere, you need either a car or a good pair of shoes. Our shoes aren’t the best. Our car is worse. My mother’s thick arm rests on the driver’s-side window ledge of her rusty, gas-guzzling Impala—the kind you buy for

to hear one another above the loud grunting of the Impala and its broken muffler. Embarrassed by the car’s belches, I slump down in my seat. In the front seat next to Cookie, my older sister Camille’s doing pretty much the same thing... but if our mother detects our attitude, we’ll find ourselves suffering nasty bruises. The only comfort is the physical space we now have to actually fit in the car without piling on top of one another as we had to for years. That’s thanks to the fact that, at age seventeen, our oldest sister, Cherie, has finagled an escape by moving in with her new husband and his parents, since she’s expecting a baby soon. In the backseat, Rosie, Norman, and I stay occupied, scratching our bony, bug-bitten legs and comparing who has the most bites and biggest scabs. We take turns pointing to them as Rosie uses her fingers as scorecards to rate them on a scale of one to ten. There’s never really a winner... we’re all pretty itchy. None of us bothers hollering to ask where we’re going. With all our belongings packed in garbage bags in the trunk, we know we’re headed to a new home. Our short-term future could take many forms—a trailer, a homeless shelter, the back parking lot of a supermarket, in the car for a few weeks, in Cookie’s next boyfriend’s basement or attic, or dare we dream: an apartment or house. We know better than to expect much—to us, running water and a few old mattresses is good living. We’ve managed with a lot less. Most girls my age idolize their sixteen-year-old sisters, but Camille is my co-captain in our family’s survival. She’s the only person in my life who’s totally transparent, and we need each other too much for any sisterly mystique to exist. For years, the two of us have worked to set up each new place so that it feels at least something like a home, even though we never know how long we might stay there. We just rest easier knowing, at nightfall, that the younger ones have a safe spot to rest their heads. Together. Without Cookie. If we can control that. Cookie puts the brakes on our wordless games when she pulls into a semicircular driveway, gravel crunching under the tires. We’re met by the image of a gray, severely neglected two-story shingled house surrounded by dirt, dust, and weeds. There are no bushes, no flowers, no greenery at all; but the lack of landscaping draws a squeal from me. “No grass!” Rosie and Norman smile and nod in agreement, understanding this means we won’t be taking shifts to accomplish Cookie’s definition of “mowing the lawn”—using an old pair of hedge clippers to cut the grass on our hands and knees. Camille and I usually cut the bulk of the lawn to protect the little ones from the blisters and achy wrists. Cookie turns off the ignition and coughs her dry, scratchy smoker’s cough. “This is it,” she announces. “Sluts and whores unpack the car.” Then she emits a loud, sputtering, hillbilly roar that never fails to remind me of a malfunctioning machine gun. As usual, she’s the only one who finds any humor in the degrading nicknames she’s pinned on her daughters. I gaze calmly at the facade before me. It’s a house... our house. Even if it ends up being only for a few days, I’m relieved that my siblings and I won’t be separated.

MY MOTHER LEFT BEHIND SCORCHED EARTH WITH THE SAME TOTALITY THAT MOTHER NATURE HAD SWEPT MY ISLAND. seventy-five dollars out of a junkyard. Her wild hair blows around the car as she flicks her cigarette into the sticky July morning. The ashes boomerang back in through my window, threatening to fly into my eyes and mouth in frantic gusts. Squinting tightly and pursing my lips hard, I know better than to mention it. My seven-year-old baby sister, Rosie; our brother, Norman, who’s twelve but still passes for an eight-year-old when we sneak into movie theaters; and me—Regina Marie Calcaterra, age thirteen (personal facts I’m well accustomed to giving strangers, like social workers and the police)—are smooshed into the backseat. Like most of our rides, the car suffers from bald tires, broken mirrors, and oil dripping from the motor. If I lift up the mats, I can see the broken pavement move beneath us through the holes in the rear floor. We rarely travel the main roads like the Southern State, Sunrise Highway, or the Long Island Expressway. For Cookie—that’s what we call my mom—the scenic route is the safest because she’s always avoiding the cops. Cookie has more warrants out on her than she has kids. And there are five of us. Her offenses? Where to start? She’s wanted for drunk driving; driving with a suspended license and an unregistered vehicle; stolen license plates; bounced checks to the landlord, utility company, and liquor store totaling hundreds of dollars; stealing from her bosses (on the rare occasion she gets work as a barmaid); and for our truancy. And if there were such a thing as a warrant for sending her kids to school with their heads full of lice, we could add that to the list, too! In the car, we don’t speak. It’s not by choice—it’s actually impossible




Regina Calcaterra was appointed executive director of New York State’s Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response by Governor Andrew Cuomo after she assisted in the recovery of Superstorm Sandy in her capacity as chief deputy executive for Suffolk County. She has provided commentary on politics and policy on national and local media outlets since 2000 and is a passionate advocate for the adoption of older foster children.

central park west issue-51  

with the debut of soho nyc magazine december 2013, central park west magazine is 1 of 13 upscale, hyper-local regional lifestyle publication...

central park west issue-51  

with the debut of soho nyc magazine december 2013, central park west magazine is 1 of 13 upscale, hyper-local regional lifestyle publication...