I'm eleven years old. My world is very small. What little extra I want or need I have to steal. Nobody's on my side. The burden of abuse and fear, coupled with the inability to learn in school, sends me free falling through adolescence. I slip through the cracks. I like it here. I find solitude and peace in the shadows. Like the other kids who have gone underground out of necessity, I look for comfort and fulfillment in all the wrong places. I gravitate toward the unsupervised, the overlooked; kids whose mothers work all day or whose parents just don't care.
I find Mandy Tetaroni. Mandy lives on Forty-eighth Street in the fifth court, as we call the inner yards of the red brick buildings that line the entire block. When the time is right, after everyone is settled at their jobs and in school, we make our way out of our hiding places. Emerging from under steps, between buildings, and subway platforms.
I walk slowly down Queens Boulevard along the tall retaining wall of Calvary Cemetery. I feel lost. I'm not in my body, yet still alive. It’s a frozen gust that slaps me back to self-awareness.
“It's cold.” I half think, half say aloud.
The angry wind hits my bare legs, sending my plaid, pleated skirt swirling up to reveal my white panties. I left the house with wet hair this morning, now the mousy brown ends are icy strands.
The grey stone embankment stretches uninterrupted nine long city blocks. I imagine that each boulder in the wall is absorbing my pain and I stop to lean against its wet, cold body for support. The cemetery wall has tears. We weep together. By the time I reach the end, the water from yesterday's puddles seeps through the holes in my saddle shoes and soaks my thin, white ankle socks.
I'm overwhelmed with anger, I've been pushed out, shamed, blamed for sins I never committed; humiliated, I've been targeted by the abusers and made to endure their attentions. I've been hit and forced to hit back, my teeth are rotting and I imagine I will become toothless like my father. Where other children are comforted and understood, supported and protected, I am not. Instead I'm criticized and rejected.
I scream out until my chest aches. My voice is drowned out by the busy stream of traffic along the boulevard. In that moment a motorist sees me, in the next, they’re gone. They’re gone, and that comforts me and enables me to vent without the danger of dismissal or worse.
My eyes burn. Tears freeze to my cheeks.
I'm almost to Mandy's now, where I will meet up with the five or six kids whose names never penetrate my psyche, but seem important to me now. Kids who never shared their stories, whose mothers I never met.
The hallway door lock is broken. I enter and climb the dark flights of stairs to the third floor. I ring the doorbell. It’s harsh and loud. I hold my breath. I know I'm doing something wrong. Mandy answers the door, lets me in and we wait. When the others arrive we pool the money we earlier stole from the pockets and purses of our parents, tally it and send the newest among us to the candy store on the corner of Fifty-eighth Street and Queens Boulevard. I took my turn once, and hated it. I wonder if some kids are more disposed to the task than others.
The same man is always behind the counter. He knows what we want. A rectangular box containing the dozen tubes of airplane glue that we will use to pacify our despair. Along with the glue he supplies us with number two brown paper bags. Just the right size to fit snuggly over our little noses and mouths.
Once the rosy-cheeked boy returns, the next step is simple. Fold the bag down twice, empty the tubes of sticky-fumed substance into the bottom, lift to face, inhale. The effect is instant, a strong vibration that starts in my ears, and grows into a numbing roar. The awful metallic taste lessening in offense with every breath. The buzz is deep and consuming, gripping my every sense, promising to hold me tight and not let go. We sit huffing glue like babies on an artificial feeder, sucking for our lives. The painful reality is that the glue dries up.
I desperately reach over and take the bag of the kid next to me. It goes unnoticed for a moment then causes a slow moving hum of conflict. Barely coherent, we take from each other, then reclaim our bags until there is nothing left.
The last time I subjected my brain and body to huffing I had what I later learned is called delirium tremens known as the DTs. The buzzing vibration that overtakes my reality reaches its peak, the wall before my eyes melts like in a horror movie, every type of insect, rat, snake, and bat comes through the apartment wall, while it drips goo and dissolves before my eyes. I'm overwhelmed with fear and leave before settling back to normalcy. Walking back along my weeping wall, I think about the dead and their souls held in by the huge smooth stones. I wonder how many were kids. How many died with a small number two bag covering their despair. I'm alive and walking home, thinking of how I might maneuver my reentry into the chaos that is my family. Harsh, unforgiving, hurtful, abusive, it is predictable and for a moment I feel a morsel of comfort in the familiar. I will have to find a new group of kids to cut school with a new apartment to close myself up in and new less frightening poisons to deaden and deny my failing childhood.