Like most, I had a rather eventful childhood. Picking just one thing from that time period that affected me the most would take me all day, however, the one most significant thing that happened that forever changed the course of my life would be that late rainy night in 1995 when I was shaken out of my sleep and rushed out of my home, having to leave everything I owned behind as we began our three month fugitive run across the United States.
That night changed my life.
It was like a scene out of a movie. Dramatic and action packed. It’s still hard to believe that this actually happened to me. Little ol’ me. I am still amazed that this was my life and I have still, in some way, never come to terms with the idea that at the tender age of 9 years old I, along with my mother, brother and step-father, became fugitives wanted by the FBI. I was a fugitive by default. By association. Or maybe I never was a fugitive but it sounds good and makes for interesting conversation when I say it. Even if I wasn’t one “technically” I felt like one and that’s all that mattered.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I’ll never forget my mother snatching me out of my sleep, yanking my covers from my skinny body and rushing me into some clothes as she, in a hurry, pushed me and my brother into the big orange machine. That’s what I called my step-fathers orange Dodge Ram Charger. I hated that damn truck. It was big, ugly, smelled like mildew and was one hell of an eyesore. It was impossible to be inconspicuous in that thing. I suppose that’s why he spray painted it dark blue before we got on the road good.
It was raining that night. Hard. I remember repeatedly asking what was going on. Where we were going? No one answered. I remember watching as my mother and step-father loaded the truck with only what would fit leaving behind the rest. My whole life. Gone. Left to be rummaged through by the homeless and picked through by friends of my parents who were called to come “pack up the house”. Every book I owned. Every stuffed animal. Every memory of my childhood. Lost. Forever. Never to be seen again.
I remember lots of talking. I remember glaring out the window as we sped up the highway frantically. Watching everything I had ever known disappear in the darkness and rain. Then nothing. I assume I fell asleep because the next memory I have was waking up at my grandmothers house. I remember overhearing my grandmother say to my mother “Leave her here. Don’t take her with you. She can stay with me” and hearing my mother respond, “Hell no. No way.” Why couldn’t I stay with my grandmother? What was going on? I remember hugging and kissing my grandmother goodbye, telling her that I would see her later not realizing that would be the last time I saw her for the next 4 years.
And then life got really crazy.
I remember the smell of the truck. It was an old truck. If I’m not mistaken it was one of the items my step-father picked up from an auction. He liked those kind of things. He loved going to yard sales, auctions and flea markets. Most of our home was furnished with old staples of his youth. He was in his late 40s, early 50s. My mother was just barely 20. I spent a lot of time in that truck. A lot of uncomfortable time in that truck. I had no idea how much more time I was going to spend in that truck. My bed had become the cooler that was sitting in the back of the truck covered with a blanket. That was where I slept. My brother got the seat. My mother and step-father would take turns rotating behind the wheel. We had to keep moving. I had no idea why.
The first stop on our “adventure” after leaving my grandmothers apartment in Rosamond, CA was Las Vegas. Apparently, we had some family there. My mother's half-brother resided there with his wife and children and we were going for a visit. I had never been to Las Vegas before. I was excited. In fact, it was my very first time every leaving the state of California. It was so bright and pretty. People were out partying. It seemed like no one ever went to sleep. I liked that. My kind of party. I especially loved Circus Circus. Back then (1995) it was actually a fun place where kids could enjoy activities while the adults played. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to wander off and fully enjoy all that it had to offer but still, it was nice to see. We only stayed in Vegas a short time. I’m not quite sure how long, but I know it was no more than a week or two. We took refuge at a sleazy hotel close to my Uncle’s home. This was my first time meeting him. Up until that moment I was under that impression that I only had one Uncle. Just one and no cousins. You can imagine my surprise when I found out that I had an actual cousin who was my age. I didn’t care if we were only half related by blood. I had a cousin! My favorite cousin. My cousin Jasmine (name changed to protect individual privacies).
Jasmine and I had so much in common. We liked the same music. Had the same taste in boys. We both were head over heels in love with Immature and we spent hours stanning over Brandy and 702. I was so excited. Those few weeks in Vegas were magical to my 9 year old self. So, you can imagine how devastated I was when I was, once again, abruptly yanked from my happy, blissful life and forced to once again endure the harsh life “on the run”. All I know is one minute we were in the mall shopping and the next minute we were running out, quick fast and in hurry, once again leaving everything behind without so much as a goodbye. I didn’t speak to or hear from Jasmine again until I was 31.
On the dark, cold road again on to destination no one fucking knows. This was becoming routine. Anywhere but here was the motto we lived by and still I hadn't the slightest idea what happened, why it happened, how we got involved or when it would end. I was trapped without so much of a word to offer on my desires because I was a child and children don’t ask adults questions. We just go with the flow.
From Las Vegas, the next stop on my memory train landed us in Spokane, Washington. Rainy, boring, Spokane. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t begin to tell you what Spokane was like. I can’t. Most of the time spent there was living out of a shabby low cost, extended stay motel where our neighbors were Billy Bob, his wife and their children who never wore shoes and looked like they came straight out of an episode of Sling Blade. But they were cool though. We ate so much McDonalds my brother was able to collect every single Power Ranger toy offered. He seriously collected them all. I, quite honestly, was sick of McDonalds and I wanted to go home. Wherever the hell that was. I hated my life, I hated the road, I hated my step-father for making us go and I hated my mother for going with him and dragging us along. I still hadn't the slightest idea what was going on or why I was being punished in such a manner but I knew one thing. I was over it. I guess it was at that moment, sitting outside watching my brother and the little white boy next door play that I began to form a hard shell of feelings fueled by hate and anger. If I had to pick an exact moment that I went “dark”, I would have to say it was at that moment. I was angry. I was bitter. I was only 9 years old but I had enough hate in my eyes and venom in my tongue to kill an entire village of people. And I intended to use it.
And then I got my period. For the first time. I started my period, at 9 years old in a random laundry-mat bathroom on the road in the dead of summer. Oh, fuck you. Fuck you all. Now I really hated everyone. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that this was the exact moment that I decided, randomly and for what reason I haven’t the slightest clue, to inform my step-father that I was sick of the shenanigans and lies. I’m not exactly sure what he said to me, or what he did, but I know one thing, I looked him in his eyes and with a firm voice I told him that I knew he wasn’t my “biological” father and that I hated his guts.
Welp. There went that. That went it. You can imagine the amount of trouble I got in. From that day forth, my relationship with my mother and step-father was never quite the same. I got my first taste of blood and I…wanted more.
Edmonton to be exact. Home of the largest mall in North America. I didn’t even realize we were in Canada. Don’t ask me how we got there because I couldn’t begin to tell you. Yes, that’s right. At one point in my life, I was an illegal immigrant. I woke up in Canada and I honestly never wanted to leave. I mean, where else in the world does the sun stay out until almost 10PM? Never in all my short 9 years had I witnessed such a phenomenon and I was intrigued. I was in heaven. We spent a few weeks hiding out in Edmonton, frequenting the malls and, once again, living life out of motel rooms. At that time, I didn’t have a clue as to how or where we got the money to do all of this. It wasn’t like we were ever rich or even close to being wealthy. I mean, I know now where we got the money but at the time I was completely oblivious to the fact that all of this traveling took money. Black people didn’t just pick up, leave all of their hard earned worldly possessions behind and travel across North America all willy nilly like.
Of course, our time in Edmonton didn’t last long and soon we were on the road again making our way through through Calgary across the border and back into the United States stopping briefly in Montana. Yes, I said Montana. My black ass was in Montana and I must say that from what I can remember it was beautiful. I’ve still never been to a more beautiful place with such beautiful land. I’ve always wanted to go back just to see if I can once again experience that calm feeling as the spirits of the ancestors brushed past me, dancing in the wind. From Montana we made our was to Wyoming, through Nebraska until we reached Missouri where we took another break for a few weeks to, I assume, gather ourselves and figure out what the next move was. I don’t remember much about our time in Missouri. It honestly is a blur but it wasn’t long before we were back on the road again, where I was once again forced to sleep on top of that dreadful damn cooler.
Did I forget to mention that the truck smelled like mildew all the time? I assume the mildew smell came from the several leaks in the ceiling of the truck, leaking rain water on the inside. My skin crawls just thinking about it.
D I S G U S T I N G.
After we left Missouri we made our way through Kentucky, West Virginia and at some point, the final destination (that I am sure was decided on a whim): Baltimore, Maryland.
Baltimore was home for my step-father. That is where he was from. He grew up there. He also hated it there. He hated Baltimore because it reminded him of everything he tried so hard not to be. Poor and Ghetto. He was now a studious man. Prideful and lead by ego. He had made something of himself. In Los Angeles, he was a respected man. An educated man who wore his education and his Jarhead (Marine) status proudly. No one knew him. Only what he wanted to be known. No one could challenge him or “bring him down” back to reality. But here. Here he was vulnerable. Here he couldn’t fake and pretend to be someone that he wasn’t. He couldn’t lie about his past or hold secrets in confidence because no one who knew them were around. Here he was a different man. He wasn’t the same man who affectionately called me “his little midget”. The nickname he had given me when I was 5 because he said that I reminded him of a little woman. Yet, even in all that the universe did to humble him, he still walked proudly and arrogantly. As if he was unstoppable. He had been gone for so long that although his past was in jeopardy of being exposed he was still able to successfully rewrite history. He had done the impossible. He had successfully evaded the law and once again rebranded himself as this man of extreme character with high morality. He could not be touched. And this newfound confidence and power made him dangerous. But no one knew him like “I” knew him. Not even my mother.
We were trapped. Secluded. Isolated. In a land where we knew no one and had access to no one but who he wanted us to know or have access too. We weren't allowed to talk to certain people. We couldn’t go certain places. He kept such a tight reign on us that from grades 4 to 7, I was not allowed to attend public schools. I was homeschooled from 1995 until the fall of 1998 with only a brief stint in a private Catholic school after we arrived in Baltimore. I’m not sure why I was removed from that school but I know I wasn’t there long. While all of the kids in the neighborhood were outside walking to school with their friends and practicing their people skills, I was stuck inside. Under him. Helping him do taxes from a dingy basement that he rented out for work because he was unable to get a job like normal people.
We had to keep a low profile and do what good wholesome families do. Go to church. Be about the church. Live for the church. Even though prior to our arrival in Baltimore I could count two maybe three times I had stepped foot inside a church. I hated him. And my hate for him grew more and more each day as I fought harder for my freedom and individuality, determined not to become a walking robot. The more I watched my mother submit and allow things to happen, either willingly or blindly, the more anger I felt. The more violent I felt. That hate eventually began to manifest itself into acts of rebellion that ultimately split up the household. Me vs them. Them being my mother and her husband.
The fights began. The beatings got worse. The more he beat me, the harder I fought. The harder I fought and the more my mother stood idly by, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the harder I was to control. This pattern continued until 1998 when the FBI showed up on our doorsteps, two days after my mother delivered my youngest sister to come take away the man I hated so much. It was embarrassing. I can still hear the pounding on the door. I can still hear the agents yelling loudly through the megaphone instructing him to come outside and surrender. I remember being told to stay in my room with my brother and baby sister, which was on the third floor of our rented row house. I remember peeking out the window and seeing all of our neighbors gather around and watch as police squad cars and black SUVS blocked off entry to Schroeder Street. It was only then that I had learned of the crimes he committed that forced me out of my home, tore me away from my grandmother and drove a wedge between the apple of my eye. My heart. My mother.
I hated him even more.
What the devil stole from me…
My mother wasn’t the same after that. She wasn't the woman I remembered. Or maybe she always was like that and I was just too young to remember. But here she was. A statistic. Technically, she was already a statistic having had me at the age of 15 but I am able to understand it now. She was alone. She was alone in a foreign place with no real friends, absolutely no family and four children. A 12 year old, a 6 year old, a 1 year old and a newborn. Alone. Left to pick up the broken pieces left by her husband to “figure it out” on her own. I honestly never understood why she didn’t pack us all up and take us home. But I guess, to be fair, I can understand why. She was young and scared. Barely in her mid-20s. Every person she knew was somehow connected to my step-father. He made sure of that. And even in his absence he seemed to have a strong hold on her. When she wasn’t working herself to death, she was worrying herself to death. Always making sure to be present and available. When we weren’t in church, she was at home waiting for his call. Running this errand or that in his name. And it made me sick. I wanted my mother to see in him what I saw all this time. I wanted my mother back and I hated that he took her from me. She was mine. Not his. And I wanted him dead for hurting her. She didn’t deserve any of this. Even after almost losing her life giving birth to my youngest sister, she still put him over herself.
Eventually he returned home. I’m not quite sure how he got released and I never bothered to ask. But from the moment he re-entered our lives I knew that it was going to be me or him. I wanted him gone for good and I was prepared to do whatever it took to get my mother back. I was banking on her choosing me. I knew that I was her pride and joy. She told me that. I was betting on her love for her first born, her “reason for living” as she used to tell me all the time. Her baby. The one she use to always play and sing “Thanks For My Child” to. You know that Cheryl Pepsi Riley song from the 80s? That’s my song. From my mommy to me.
I lost that bet. I guess that’s why even to this day I’m not much of a betting woman.
I lost the biggest bet of my life. And as a result I ended up entering my high school years, motherless. Back in California, with my grandmother. The one woman I felt loved me the most.
What’s done is done…
To be clear, I no longer hate or abhor ill feelings towards my step-father (whom I refer to as dad) or my mother. I am past that. I came to terms a long time ago with the happenings of my past and have accepted what has been done as done. It can not be changed and muling over past hurt does me absolutely no good. I have accepted my trials as a necessary “thing” that needed to happen in order for me to reach the level of self I have reached today. Today I am at peace with my past and I have accepted it as a part of who I am. And for the sake of my siblings, whom I love dearly, I have made amends or at least I have been trying to.
One of the things I had to come to terms with when trying to work my way through the many emotions that still lingered long into my adulthood was that everyone chooses their own life paths. My mother chose hers. And as much as I wanted to keep hating her and holding on to that hurt, I couldn’t continue to justify hurting myself by trying to hurt her. I needed my mother. I wanted a mother. And deep down, I wanted a father too. I was lonely. Alone and I had no one to turn to. I didn’t know my biological fathers side of the family (I met them when I was 27) and my mothers side of the family very rarely dealt with each other. Honestly, I can’t tell you one time or share one memory that included someone other than my grandmother or uncle. No cousins. No Aunts. No Great Aunts. Uncles. Okay maybe that’s a lie. I do remember one great-aunt with a severe mustache and beard. She was mean as hell too. Mean ol ‘lady with the plastic couch covers and hard candy on the coffee table. Tsk. Oh, and then there was Cousin Pookie. But I haven’t seen her since I was 5 years old.
I missed a lot of time with my mother. A lot of time. But I have to remember that just as much as I missed my mother, she missed her daughter. She didn’t get to help me prepare for my first date. She wasn’t the one I ran to when I had my first crush. It wasn’t her shoulder that I cried on when I got my heart broken for the first time. She didn’t get to help me get ready for prom. Study for my SATs. It wasn’t her that attended college open houses with me. She didn’t get to attend my first track meet. My first basketball game. She never got to take me my first acting class or my first talent show. She wasn’t there to guide me through puberty and help me understand the changes I was going through, physically and emotionally. She missed seeing her first born grow into a woman and I know it hurts her knowing that she was not there. Both by her own fault and my own. Because I pushed her away. Even when she tried to make amends. I pushed her away and kept her at a distance. At one point, I chose to made amends with my step-father before her out of spite and hate. Because I wanted to hurt her the same way I was hurting. When she would call and ask my grandmother to speak to me I would decline. To this day, my mother is convinced that my grandmother was the one who went behind her back and filed for permanent custody of me preventing my mother from being able to come get me. But it wasn’t my grandmother. It was me. I asked my grandmother to take me to the court and file the petition for custody. I told the courts that I never wanted to see her again and that she chose someone over me. Which was true. I told the court that she didn’t love me because if she did, why would she send me away? But still...
Thru the hurt and anger, having gone through my own trials and tribulations as a wife and a mother I understand her now. I have come to accept that she did the best that she could, with what she had and at that time she thought what she was doing was right. I can’t fault her for that. I can’t hate her for that forever. She had three other children by him. Perhaps, she thought that by sending me away she was protecting me. Perhaps she thought I would be safer with my grandmother. Who knows. Every war has a casualty. No battle is won without an injury. I didn’t die. I was merely wounded and at some point, for myself, I had to learn how to forgive and move on.
It still hurts though. The pain is still real. The trauma never truly goes away. You never truly stop wondering what your life would have like if certain things had not taken place. I often find myself wondering who I would be if my mother had decided to let him leave California on his own. Would I have my sisters? Where would she be? Would we still be living in South Central? Would I be in jail? Would she? What would our relationship be like today if he had never entered the picture? Would I have been raped at 15? Who knows.
The mind never stops wondering. All I can do now is continue to work at reclaiming all that was lost in my youth and work continuously to make sure that my own daughter never has to feel or experience what I went through.
Life is about progress and growth. It’s the only way to heal.
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