100 Bucks and a Tank Full of Gas

I wanted independence from my Mom’s controlling, manipulative, abusive ways, but I did not want to be alone.

Hello again. Welcome to the continuation of my story about escaping an abusive home.  

I sat surrounded by my sparse belongings on the floor of my temporary bedroom, across the hall from Jamie’s, my best friend. Her older sister Rachel would return from studying abroad in a few days, so she would take back her room soon.

Rachel’s bedroom was large with an attached bathroom and a small deck, accessible through sliding glass doors. I could not take my eyes off those dark doors.

Related: A Community of Writers Helped Me Change My Life (part 1)

Earlier in the night, I ran away from a filth-filled hoarder home and my mother. I did not run far, just across town to stay with my best friend’s family. Mom did not take it well. I was full of irrational fears that she would show up, face pressed against the sliding glass doors, threatening me.

I ended up sleeping in the second twin bed in Jamie’s room that night. I wanted independence from my Mom’s controlling, manipulative, abusive ways, but I did not want to be alone.

I attended school with Jamie every day that week and was bussed to the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), my writing school, in the afternoons. I began an unfamiliar routine of sitting down to do homework after school and evenings. My grades improved immediately.

I was living the upper-middle-class Jewish life my grandparents had intended for their children to provide for their grandchildren.

I will call Jamie’s family the Epsteins, not because it was their name but because it was the name of my grandfather’s favorite Jewish deli in Hartsdale, New York. The Epstein family included Jamie, her older sister, Rachel, who was usually away at school, her father Cedar and her mother, Betsy.

I did not cut off all communication with my family, but there was a lot of resentment about my leaving. My sister, Danielle was saddled with the care of our mother, which meant frequent visits and head-to-wall confrontations.

I tried to explain how abusive and sick Mom was to her mother, my grandmother, Rita, whom we called Ri, but she did not hear what she did not want to. Ri expressed disappointment but never asked me to go home to Mom.

The Epsteins lived in a large, contemporary house with an in-ground pool and trampoline. They employed a housekeeper, Celeste, who kept the house speckless and the laundry clean and put away. The girl in me, who could not walk on her floor at home, was ecstatic to slide my socked feet across the hardwood, and the black and white check tiled floor of the foyer.

Related: I Donated Blood the Day I Ran Away From Home (Part 2)

Jamie’s family was easy going, but as Cedar, her dad would say, “If you screw up, your ass is grass.” He said this to me at dinner on my second night living with them. They sat down to dinner as a family every weeknight around a stark white breakfast bar and discussed their days.

I wanted to be more like the Epsteins. Betsy coached me. At first, I was defensive every time she pointed out a dysfunctional behavior. I suggested we come up with a hand signal to describe what she called wedging. I used to listen to Jamie bitch, in a teenager way, about her mother and then repeated what she said to Betsy. This drama-instigating back and forth was ingrained from childhood. Mom constantly pitted my sister, Danielle and me against each other, taking one into confidence only to betray us to the other. I will never see a wedge-shaped peace sign the same way again.

The town’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) stepped into my life within a couple of days of my leaving home. Cedar, a local lawyer, contacted them to make sure there would be a support system in place for all of us.

Tina was my unsupportive social worker. I was told that before the small town office opened four years prior, cases of abuse in the town of Woodbridge, Connecticut, went mostly unsubstantiated by the overloaded DCFS central office (fifteen minutes away) in downtown New Haven.

Every year, over Christmas and New Years, Cedar, Betsy, Rachel, and Jamie went on vacation. Cedar and Betsy contacted Tina to see if there was somewhere I could stay while they were away.

We met with an architect and his wife who inhabited a house worthy of “Dwell” magazine. I worried my presence made the house dirty with its clean lines, curves, white and the distinct lack of clutter or dust. The couple were kind and said they would enjoy providing a respite home for me for the week; I wished I related to them enough to take them up on their generous offer, but it was my choice, and I did not want to stain their home.

Sue and Cedar gave me $100, use of their extra car, a turquoise station wagon, which Jamie and I named Chester. If you hit the dashboard in the right spot, to the slight right of the radio, the windshield wipers swiped twice. The primary rule, in their absence, was not to have company. That seemed easy to me; I was not expecting a full dance card.

A day or so before they left for vacation, Rachel arrived home from studying abroad in Europe. I was warned by each member of the family that Rachel was tough, ambitious, and a bit of a bitch. They meant bitch in the nicest sense, as in future CEO. They were a very loving and affectionate family, so there was never a fear that any insults were more than jest. It was very different from my family whose jests carried a biting edge of truth with every jab.

When Rachel got home, she filled her room back up as if she had never left. She straightened her dark hair and confidently wore the pudge of an ivy league scholar, who worked and played hard. She spoke knowledgeably about current affairs around the world and other issues I’d never had time to worry about.

It was hard to imagine having a life where you were able to focus on learning and awareness rather than emotional survival. Rachel was a junior at UPenn and everyone knew she would eventually go to Harvard Business School, and she did. I wanted to be her.

I was not exactly alone in the house after the family left. I had Murphy, the family’s meaty and loving Bichon Frise and Celeste the live-in housekeeper. They had the housekeeper live-in because they could not leave Jamie home alone. Her intractable epilepsy and occasional psychosis-producing meds made leaving her alone risky. Celeste did not speak much English, and she hated me.

I prided myself on being agreeable and easy-going. Sure I smoked a cigarette or even a clove or two, but on a whole, I was a tame teen. I did not even consider the possibility that I would do anything to get myself in trouble.

I rented movies on VHS and enjoyed the junk food that Cedar stashed in the bar for poker nights. With my mother’s Benson and Hedges Deluxe Ultra Lights washed from my porous, curly hair, I was clean and beginning to feel at home.

At ECA, my social status was elevated when I ran away. Since next to most of the students I was comparatively un-bohemian, being a runaway finally made me interesting. One of the girls from my class, Karen called me to hang out at the mall.

I never hung out at the mall. What did one do at the mall? I decided to go ahead with this typical teen right of passage. We ended up getting Orange Julius’ and shopping at Hot Topic. Karen found a studded black leather belt. I invested in a velvety black and purple wallet.

Later that evening Karen invited me in when I dropped her off. “Sure,” I said. “Why not.”

Karen’s sister, Leslie was close to us in age. We joined her and two guys our age, who I did not know. It took me a few minutes to see the bottle of vodka they were all passing. Karen offered it to me as it came around.

“No thanks, still have to drive home.”

They all talked about things going on at Wilbur Cross, their high school, of which I knew nothing. I was close to making an excuse to leave when their bottle ran dry. They were all moving and speaking a notch slower than seemed normal. I only saw one guy drunk before, but I was pretty sure that was what I was seeing.

The taller of the two guys said, “Let’s go over to Steve’s house, his parents are away.” He stood producing keys from a jean pocket.

Everyone got up. I did too. “Um guys, do you think driving is a good idea?”

They gawked at me like I was stupid, as if a couple of months ago, I didn’t sit through an assembly where a classmate cried as she related her father’s death by a drunk driver the year prior.

“Maybe we could just stay here.” Karen seemed to note my discomfort. She sat back down.

“Nah man, it’s early.” The shorter fatter guy started up the stairs.

I knew it was a mistake as the words left my mouth, “Well I can drive, we can go back to where I’m staying.” I could not call it my home yet.

“Is there booze?” Tall guy’s mouth was open; his head tipped to the side.

“Yes,” I answered, even though Rachel warned me that most of the booze was watered down from parties she got away with in high school.

Once we got back to the Epsteins’ house, I corralled everyone in the pink and purple playroom above the garage and fetched a giant bottle of watered down absolute from the bar. We played truth or dare, and I looked on as they all got drunker on alcohol tinged water.

Once they drank their fill, corralling them failed. The Tall guy was blond and kind of cute in a dumb sort of way. Though I was sober, I ended up making out with the tall guy, while the other three explored the house, falling down stairs, crashing into walls, and changing the thermostat in the master bedroom. The crash abruptly ended my make-out session.

I was surprised I did not see Celeste; I hoped she was staying at a friend’s as she sometimes did. I came out of Jamie’s room with the tall guy and herded everyone back up to the play room. They all crashed and burned for the night aside from the occasional vomiting on the carpet.

The day after the Epsteins returned, Jamie and I headed out to sample Burger King’s new french fries. We even went inside and ate there, a rare event. She caught me up on the vacation shenanigans; apparently there was dancing on a table at a beachside bar. Sounded like they had a way better party than mine.

Jamie’s phone rang; She wrestled the bulky, flip phone from her pink, stuffed pig-shaped purse. Betsy wanted us to meet her and Cedar at the Woodbridge DCFS office. We obliged, in just a few short weeks I grew used to frequent visits to the office.

When we got there, they made Jamie wait outside the meeting room. Betsy, Cedar, Rachel, and Tina, the social worker, sat around the table. I sat next to Betsy and waited. No one was smiling.

“You have done a very serious thing…” Robin began

Cedar impatient to get to the point,  interrupted, ”You had a party when we were away. We trusted you.”

“It wasn’t a party. I didn’t mean to.” My tongue flailed for excuses. I do not remember much of the meeting just the vibration of my rapid heartbeat. The meeting careened from the your caught moment to the now you will go live in a shelter, conclusion. I said nothing.

I was shuffled into cedars car with a suitcase they had packed for me. I would get the rest later; they were not cutting me out of their lives, but they could not trust me. Cedar, Betsy, and Jamie headed home.

Rachel chauffeured me to a youth center in New Haven, to an unfamiliar part of the city. I rode in the backseat in silence. As Rachel pulled up in front of a youth center, where a new social worker was to meet me, she said, “They won’t stay mad long, they never do.”

I stood in the entry of the silent, half-lit youth center with my suitcase and waited for a sign of life. Worried there was no one there and I had nowhere to go, I turned back and Rachel was gone.


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