I’ve thought about this time in my life a lot lately. It’s hard to imagine me at 11 processing these feelings on my own. I think it all adds up, all the grief, you remember, even if you don’t remember consciously your body remembers and while I do believe if you work with it and acknowledge it, it helps in the letting go – there are still times that it comes back.
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My home sits in the middle of a block in north Portland, Oregon. It’s a 1950s bungalow, remodeled in 1950s style and color, painted a fresh bright mint green, a brown door with three beveled glass windows in it, white trim and two taupe colored stairways leading up from the sidewalk.
One Sunday evening I am staring at nothing out the front windows in the kitchen and see a small black cat, sauntering—yes, he is sauntering—up the left set of stairs. He’s a tiny little thing with bright green eyes. “Oh look, a black cat,” I yell to my partner, Julie. “What?” she says, running into the kitchen, leaning toward the window. He walks right up the steps onto the back patio. Julie is absolutely and utterly excited about the prospect of another cat. She grabs the cat food and rushes outside, sprinkling it on the ground. Not too rushed, though. “I don’t want to scare him off,” she says. I stand inside for a moment and eventually move to the doorway with the door nearly shut behind me so Isabel, the cat that lives with us, doesn’t run out. “Oh, he’s so skinny—he must not have a home. His head looks so big because he’s too skinny.” She is knelt down next to him, but not too close, barely touching him. I can see his tiny ribs, black fur flecked with gray. He is older than I would have thought, his skin sagging a little. The shining smile in Julie’s eyes when she looks up at me has me feeling momentarily outrageous, so much so that I want to shout out, “Let’s keep him!”
“We’ll call him Todd, since his head is so big—after Big Head Todd and the Monsters,” she says. I feel it in my heart, yes, let’s keep him. What happens next is how it always is with me—my brain and my body take over. My old memories flood back to me, and I hate using the word flood to describe emotions, but it is what it feels like. I can’t turn it off. I can talk myself through it, but I can’t turn it off. The images that come to me are the way they are. I can’t really say it out loud either. So I brood on it and sit there, feeling something stuck in my throat, as if to speak it would cause me great harm, but it’s in there and it wants to come out. So much so that this little cat has become a metaphor in my life for the words that I need to speak, that I need to say aloud to help myself and possibly to help someone else. Some part of me believes this. We don’t end up adopting him, but in a way, he adopts me—appearing at just the right times over the next few months to help me remember and pull up these old memories. Coincidence? I think not—Carl Jung says what doesn’t come to you in consciousness comes to you as fate. For me, Todd is both.
So while the world is going on, Julie talking about the cat outside and how he must not have a home and we’ll have to feed him and this and that, I try to distract myself, doing something on the computer or my phone, playing a game, drinking a glass of wine—but that’s not where I am. I’m not even in my body. I’m in a field in Hartland, Michigan, and I am 11.
* * *
I’m in a field of tall grass in the heat of summer. Sweat drips and drops off of me. My blonde hair is pasted against my neck and face. I’m not a very sweaty kid, I’m more of misty kid. Sweat covers me most days from head to toe when it’s hot. I’ve never liked the heat even though I was born in the summer. It gives me a headache. I wish I did like summer. Everyone else can’t wait until it comes around, but I’m too fair-skinned to ever fall in love with it. Most summer days I’m inside, in the water or somewhere cool. If not, I’m likely complaining and miserable, because I can’t stand the heat. But not today. Today, I’m out in the field next to our home in Hartland, Michigan, just three lines in from my thumb, that’s where I live on the map. I’m playing with a bunch of kittens. They are the sweetest things ever, their tiny green eyes and soft baby fur. I love them so much I’ll even stand right in the heat of the sun for them. I whisper to them—things I’ve never heard anyone say to me. “I love you, little kitten.” Always in a hush. I know if someone hears they’ll tease me. We don’t say such things at my house and I don’t know why we don’t, but we don’t and if you even think of such things, someone will call you a baby, an asshole, a witch or something worse. “You’re my best friends.” Grinning as I tell them. A tear wells in the corner of my eye when I say it. I don’t know why that tear does that. I blink it back. “No sense crying over some silly cats.” That’s what I tell myself whenever I start to worry about something I shouldn’t or can’t do anything about. I’m 11, crying is for babies. “No sense crying over that.” The cats are tiny, maybe six or eight weeks old, two gray, one black, and two black and white—“a mixed breed,” Momma would say. I’ve named each of them after someone famous, someone I might be like when I grow up. I wouldn’t ever tell anyone their names. It’s a secret between me and my kittens and if I did tell someone they’d laugh at me and I’d never hear the end of it. There is no use for imagination where I live, but my imagination is strong inside of me. I’m the baby out of 10 kids, so I’m used to having things taken away from me, but they can’t take away what’s in my head, especially when I don’t tell them what’s there.
Momma and Daddy have been gone for nearly a year—I’m not sure they are ever coming back. Daddy, who is this old guy with wispy gray hairs on the top of his head, always covered by a trucker hat or a Greek fisherman’s hat, even though he is not Greek or a trucker, pulled me aside one day and dragged me into the park, which made me want to scream and run away because he gives me the creeps. I get that feeling inside that says something bad is about to happen whenever I am alone with him, and for all the things I don’t feel or don’t admit—that’s one thing I do listen to. He promised he just had something to tell me and wouldn’t do anything bad, so I went with him into the park—and tell me something he did. He told me, with his old coffee breath streaming right out of his mouth into my nose and out the top of my head, that he and Momma were leaving to find work and they’d come back to get me. I didn’t really believe him because I hardly know him and in my family we don’t trust people we don’t know. I also didn’t know what to say. So I stood there in silence and pretended it wasn’t going to happen.
I never knew Daddy before last year when he moved in with us. No one ever even told me he was moving in. I only overheard Momma saying to one of the older kids, “We need him. We’ll have a better life if he’s around.” I haven’t seen anything better since he’s been around. Anyone who was old enough to move out of the house did, right away. Johnny and Bobby are the only ones left with me. With Daddy moved in, the rules changed fast. No TV, unless you wanted to watch PBS, which is the most terrible channel I’ve ever watched. We ate microwave food instead of real food and it didn’t taste good. Momma didn’t watch TV with us anymore, she played cards with him and I had to go to bed at 9:00. Before that I always stayed up past 11:00.
Momma and Daddy left me with Johnny and Bobby. Johnny is 18 and Bobby is 16. Johnny is in charge because he is older, taller than Bobby, and Daddy for that matter, and has a job. He doesn’t go to school anymore, because he quit. I don’t know why he quit, he never told me, and I never asked. He just stopped going one day and that was that. People do this kind of thing all the time in my family, they stop doing something or start doing something and never explain anything and no one asks and it seems no one even cares. Why would you ask anyway?
I’m so sad that Momma left me here and is off doing something with Daddy. I yell at Bobby and antagonize him, until he can’t stand it any longer and he hits me or chases me or holds me down and tickles me until I pee my pants, then he laughs at me and I’m humiliated, which actually makes me feel better than crying about missing Momma. That’s how we work through things around here. We don’t ever talk about a thing and wouldn’t know what you meant if you asked how we were feeling. I’d respond with “I’m alive aren’t I? That’s good enough for me.” But on the inside, I tell you, there’s something dark in me that would love to just jump in the pond and go under the water and never ever come back out. Just stay at the bottom all cried out and dead.
I much prefer living with Johnny and Bobby than having Daddy leering and lurking around every corner being weird and making me watch PBS. I sure do miss Momma though, but I never tell anyone that I do. It’s fun sometimes being with Bobby and Johnny. They let me stay up late, they give me money to leave them alone, and I go to the store and buy candy. They take me with them to places with this loud music playing—I feel like a wild animal, doing whatever comes into my head! Sometimes, though, I wish I were not here but somewhere else, where it’s just me and Momma.
These little kittens I have out in the field with me are like me. Well, not really. Their Momma kitty comes back and brings them food and they get milk from her sometimes, but they are kind of growing up on their own, just like me. Nobody tells me nothing about nothing about growing up, except wash your face, don’t chew with your mouth open and don’t wear that goddamn baseball hat every day. I try to act normal whenever I get in front of anyone I haven’t met before or when I’m at school and everyone else seems to know what they are supposed to be doing, but I’m just lost, walking around looking for someone to tell me what to do. But there isn’t anyone to tell me. These kittens are my only real friends. I know a few kids from school and from around town, but I don’t trust anyone outside my family. I can’t be honest with them. I might end up in a foster house or an orphanage or something worse, and I think the evil and good you know are better than the ones you don’t.
The kittens are good, that is one thing I know for sure.
It’s a sunny morning in the summer, the middle of June, before Bobby’s birthday, which is on the 25th. He is about to turn 17. In my mind, he’s a slob and an ugly-faced pig, but in reality, he’s a sweet-looking boy with a swath of blond hair that’s unruly but handsome all the same. His eyes are twinkling blue, just like mine and just like Momma says Daddy’s are, but I’ve seen Daddy and his eyes look old and gray, not twinkling at all. Bobby’s tall and trim and wears a pair of tight swim shorts when he works in the yard. Secretly I love him so much I’d like to hug him, but I’ll never, ever mention that to anyone, not ever.
I’m out in the sun twirling around in the dirt and I see Bobby and my sister Jenny’s husband, Fred. Fred used to smoke a lot of pot and sell it right out of the kitchen in their trailer. Since they have two kids now, he stopped doing that. Fred seems old to me, 25, with his long black ponytail and scraggly beard. They’re kind of whispering, but whispering in the way that boys do, not whispering at all. Fred says, “Man, there’s about 20 cats around here, I’ve got no idea how in the hell so many cats popped up so fast, but we’ve got to take care of them. The best way to do it is either put them in a bag and throw them in the pond, or put them in a bag and bury them in a hole.” I stop still from my twirling around and around and stare at the dirt. I’m stiff like a board and I want to scream at them “Don’t kill my friends!” but I don’t. It wouldn’t change a thing and they might decide to put me in the hole or in the pond as well, and while I would like to die lots of days, I can’t really make myself go through with that whole idea.
Bobby slams the screen door to the back shed of our house. When Momma was here she would have yelled, “Don’t slam the goddamn door.” But she’s not here so no one cares. I don’t like the slam of the door, but it doesn’t bother me enough to start something with Bobby. He comes back out of the house with a shovel. He strips off his shirt and throws it over one of the three laundry lines we have hanging from the house to the old falling-down barn that has an outhouse connected to it. It’s not a working outhouse—someone filled the holes with dirt. Bobby’s back is brown from sun and I notice muscle on him that I’ve never seen before. This summer he’s working on the hay farm for the first time ever. I don’t think he likes it too much but it’s the only work he can get. His mouth is closed tight and straight across—he’s on a mission. I stand out of the way with my back against the scraped-up house. We scraped the house last year and painted it, but didn’t have enough paint for the back of the house or the back shed, so they are rough to the touch and smell deep of rain and wood. It’s a smell that I would take with me in a bottle if I knew how. He marches off to the back right corner of the yard. He’s wearing his swimming shorts, his white tube socks and his blue Trax shoes from Kmart. I hate Kmart. I’d rather go to the mall, but we can’t afford anything at the mall so we shop at Kmart once a year for clothes. He jabs the shovel at the ground and jumps up and lands on the top of the shovel with both feet pushing it deep into the ground. He does this over and over and over. I know what he’s doing, but I don’t want to admit it. So I watch and watch and then I get hungry as if nothing is going on at all and go over to where he is. “You want a bologna sandwich?” I ask. “Get out of here, Amy,” he says, short and quick. Normally I’d protest and yell something or say something back, but this time I slink off and go and make myself a fried bologna sandwich. I like to cook, and frying up bologna is a special and easy treat. My bologna sandwich has two pieces of bologna, fried until the edges are brown and crispy, Miracle Whip on both pieces of bread, mustard squirted only on the bologna and six potato chips. After my sandwich and a long cool drink out of the hose to wash it down, I go back where he is digging and sit and watch. He’s knee deep in the hole now and I pretend I’ve no idea why he’s digging. I don’t say a word because that’s what we do—we don’t ask. We just pretend we know and keep going along as if we do, but this time I do know. I know he’s about to murder my friends, my little kittens. After what seems like hours, but probably isn’t, Bobby lifts himself up out of the hole. His feet and knees black with soil that Momma says “makes my garden grow the best tomatoes I’ve ever had.” He runs to the back shed of the house and gets a black garbage bag and I still don’t ask what he’s doing. But on the inside I feel something shaking, deep down inside of me that I push down as hard as I can. He heads to the field and I follow, but not too close. He doesn’t look down at all. He grabs each tiny kitten by the scruff of its neck and throws it in the bag. I press myself close to the side of the barn, the rough splintery-filled wood cool against my cheek, breathing in the sweet smell of the barn and holding my breath. I want to ask him what he’s doing and why he’s putting those kittens in the bag, but I can’t open my mouth. My heart beats as if the whole world is counting on me to ask, but I can’t. I turn and walk steady paces long and deep to the back of the barn where I can still see the hole Bobby dug. Unless you were looking for me, you wouldn’t see me. Bobby holds the bag full of kittens wriggling and jiggling out in front of him. He walks fast and even, without looking up, staring straight ahead. He stops above the hole and for one second looks like he might turn back, but doesn’t. He drops the bag of kittens into the hole and shovels dirt back where it came from. He’s moving fast, the shovel turning over and over, and finally the hole is full. His face is without expression at all. His eyes tell me different. There is a tiny bit of sadness leaking out of him, just like those tears leak out of my head sometimes. He tamps the back of the shovel on the dirt, scrapes it over once or twice to even it out and walks away. As if to say, “There, no one will know what I just did.”
I can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe. I lie down on the ground and hold onto it with my hands. The world is spinning out of control. Who puts cats in a bag and buries them? Why couldn’t I ask what was going on? Do I have time to dig them up? There’s got to be some other solution, I know there has to be. I can’t do anything though, I’m 11 and I’m just a baby on the inside still. I can’t do anything, the tears drip right out of my head, I can’t blink them back. I hold the grass as if it’s holding me back, keeping me from spinning right off the earth and into another universe, maybe one where cats don’t get put in bags and get thrown into a hole. I know I’m feeling something but I don’t know what. When I’m sure Bobby is not around, I go and lie next to that pile of smoothed-over dirt and pretend I hear those famous kittens and in my mind they are singing my name and saying, “Go, Amy—go far away and be alive.” And I know that one day I will. I’m not going to die here. I’m not going to die. I will never give up. I will say it over and over and over, I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to stay here and be like this. I’m going to get out. I’m going to get out.