::: Finalist for the 2014 Best of the Net Award in Nonfiction :::
I grew up a few blocks away from the entrance to the Rikers Island Bridge. Our house was unidentifiable, somewhere in the middle of a long line of uninterrupted, attached brick houses. My parents, little brother, and I lived on the top floor, my grandparents on the second floor, and revolving tenants in the illegal first floor walk-in. I was ten years old during the 1990 census and my grandparents instructed me to never, ever tell anyone about the other people that live in the house. I dutifully lied to the census taker, then spent the rest of the night agonizing over my family’s outlaw status.
MOM, WHY DO WE RENT OUT THE APARTMENT IF IT’S ILLEGAL?
“Everyone does it, Sara, now go to sleep.”
BUT IT’S AGAINST THE LAW!
“Sara, it’s not a big deal.”
ARE WE GONNA GET ARRESTED? WILL WE GET SENT TO RIKERS?
“No, Sara, they only give you a ticket if they find out. Now go to sleep.”
But I was barely ever able to sleep. I spent most nights kneeled up in bed, elbows on the windowsill. My bedroom window faced our backyard and everyone else’s. I thought our backyard was luxurious. Not everyone at school had a backyard. We had a little patch of grass. We had a swing. We had fig trees. We had a dog.
From my window I could see the top floor of the public school around the block, lights coming out from a different pattern of windows every night. I heard neighbors fighting, their words lost in the air no matter how hard I struggled to understand them. I heard dogs barking. There was always the smell of freshly baked bread, and in summer, the aroma sometimes mingled with the smells of shit from the sewage plant down the road, right near the entrance to the Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
One afternoon, we found footprints in the dirt around the fig tree. The houses across and next to us had all been robbed through the backyards. Our dog, Ian, a giant Siberian husky, must have scared them away while we were all sleeping. He died later that summer, though, and there was no one else to protect the house. At my windowsill vigil, it was my job to keep an eye out for burglars, to decipher the random tinkling sounds, to ponder the mystery of the PS 84 lights, to memorize the pattern of the treetops and to imagine the path of the sun. But, mostly it was my job to make sure Rikers escapees did not hide out in our yard.
* * *
Rikers towered in our imaginations. Everyone knew someone whose brother or uncle was at Rikers, or whose apartment was used for Law and Order. We watched the blue and white school buses stamped CORRECTIONS transport inmates twice a day and we struggled to see if the buses were empty or full. I imagined if I looked long enough, I’d see fingers clamp around the metal grating on the windows, trying to yank it free.
I’d lie awake at night and stare at the ceiling, and imagine being on that bus. What if I get arrested for murder, a murder I didn’t commit? That familiar anxiety and turmoil churned in my chest. It could happen. I could just be walking around one day and someone could come along and say I murdered someone and then I would be gone, whisked away to Rikers. I clutched my head. It could happen. I stared at the ceiling in agony, hyperventilating, then screaming for my mother. MOM! When she came in through the doorway of my bedroom I cried,
WHAT WILL YOU DO IF I GET ARRESTED FOR MURDER?
“Why would you get arrested? You plan on killing anyone?”
NO BUT WHAT IF I AM WRONGLY IMPRISIONED?
“I’d fight for you, Sara. I’d get you out. But that’s not gonna happen to you.”
HOW DO YOU KNOW! IT COULD HAPPEN! IT HAPPENS TO PEOPLE!
“Not to you, Sara, you’re just a little girl.”
WHAT IF I REALLY DO MURDER SOMEONE! WOULD YOU STILL FIGHT FOR ME?
“I would. That’s a mother’s job. To fight for her kids.”
EVEN A MURDERER?!
“You’re not a murderer, Sara. I can tell. Now go to sleep.”
I CAN’T SLEEP! ARE YOU CRAZY! WHAT IF SOMEONE BREAKS INTO THE HOUSE?
“No one is gonna break in.” She backed out of the room. She wanted to get back to watching her program, St. Elsewhere. “I promise. Sleep.”
She was useless.
If no one else was going to protect our house, then I had to.
* * *
Five things I saw floating outside my bedroom window while dreaming:
1) Our dog, Ian (sad because he’d just died)
2) Myself (really scary)
3) Bon Jovi (kinda cool)
4) An unidentifiable man (scary)
5) Big, fluffy clouds (not possible)
* * *
My parents worked during the day, while my grandma did the cooking, laundry and raising of the children. My little brother was always at one normal afterschool activity or another—camp, baseball, or playing with the kids in the street outside. I usually stayed home by myself to read, work on my art and book projects, and force my Barbies into elaborate orgies. And I liked being at home with my grandparents in case anything went wrong. My grandparents despised one other. I didn’t know enough Italian to fully understand what they fought about every day but I knew the curse words: va fanculo (go fuck yourself in the ass) che cazzi e (what the ballsack are you doing) puttana (whore) porco puttana (pig whore). They would stand, red-faced, screaming, and facing each other as if in a boxing ring, each with their own weapon–a rolling pin, a pan, my grandfather’s cane, my grandmother’s butcher knives. I’d try to separate them, but it was no use trying to yell louder than they did. They’d shove me aside. I was a little fly in their hurricane.
Between my grandparents two plastic-wrapped, park-bench-like couches was a little space I could shimmy my way into. The couches were pushed against a wall of full-length mirrors trimmed with gaudy black and gold borders. Once through the doorway of wooden couch legs it was my own little apartment. I pretended the little mirror image of myself was another girl playing with me. There was a whole world behind the couches. Sometimes I dragged my Barbies in there with me, but if it was a particularly bad fight, I took the phone in there with me as well. I called 911 a few times, but didn’t know that calling 911 meant that cops would come and make me leave my couch fort. The police would peak through, tell me to come out and talk, but I’d retreat further back into the world behind the couches. Once the police left and the house was quiet, my grandmother’s arm would materialize between the couches, and hand me a juice box.
My parents and grandparents told me not to call 911 anymore. “This is no one’s business!” I heard my grandmother say to my mother.
My mom sat me down on the stairs that connected our apartment to my grandparent’s. “Sara, why did you call 911?”
THEY WERE STRANGLING EACH OTHER AND I COULD’NT GET THEM TO STOP!
SHE POKED HIM WITH AN UMBRELLA UNTIL HE FELL DOWN THE STAIRS.
“He was fine, wasn’t he?”
THEY HAD KNIVES. THEY WERE STABBING EACH OTHER.
“They’re just having a discussion. Just ignore them when they fight. You know that.”
“Believe me, I’ve seen worse. Don’t call the cops, it upsets your grandmother.”
I just wanted to make sure no one died. They were both capable of murder. I believed that.
My mother said, “Let them kill each other.”
* * *
I loved to hide in spaces where only I could fit. I hid in clothing racks and closets. I hid under coffee tables and in bookcases. My favorite hiding place was underneath the ancient, lumbering ping-pong table in the basement. There was a sealed-shut, child-sized door in the bathroom of the basement that was a focus of my obsession.
WHAT IS INSIDE THAT DOOR? WHERE DOES THE DOOR GO? IS IT A PASSAGEWAY TO RIKERS?
“Sara, it’s just a little crawl space. We sealed it because of the mice.”
This was a bullshit answer. No one would tell me the truth. Were we harboring a family? Kidnapping children and keeping them captive? I knew for a fact there was a dark stairway behind that little door that led to the cavernous belly of the house. There were other hidden staircases and tunnels and caves and a slew of things I didn’t know about.
* * *
Kneeling up in bed, fingers clasped to the windowsill, I listened to the dark. I tried to figure out what sounds came from where. That rustling—which direction was that coming from? That shape over there—was that one of Lina-from-next-door’s bushes or was it a person standing very still? Why are the lights on so late at the school? What is going on in there?
On my nightstand was an antique lamp that used to be my mother’s. It had a big blue glass belly painted with little black and white flowers. Sometimes, I’d stare at it as I tried to go to sleep, thinking of my mother when she was my age, and how she must have also stared at the lamp just like I was, and how essentially the lamp was my mother as a child, and what if the lamp broke? I wanted to die thinking about the lamp breaking because if that happened it would also be my mother breaking and dying. I needed to keep that lamp safe forever so I could give it to my daughter and then there would be three people in the lamp, all alive.
MOM, I cried out frantically, MOM! I was unhinged and about to cry.
She sauntered into my room.
WHAT IF THE LAMP BREAKS?
“The lamp’s not gonna break, Sara, I’ve had it forever.”
I KNOW! EXACTLY! IT’S OLD! WHAT IF IT BREAKS!
“It won’t. I don’t know how many times I dropped it. It’s made of a special glass—very strong.”
Oh, my mind quieted. Okay. It was an answer I was satisfied with. I liked it when things made sense.
* * *
My mother often threatened my brother and I with Rikers, especially when we fought. “Stop that night now, or I’m droppin’ you off at Rikers!” she’d say.
One night on the way back from grocery shopping, as we bickered in the backseat, my mother turned at the Rikers Island sign and headed towards the bridge. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I shrieked. I was terrified and thrilled. My brother went silent, and still.
“I’m just gonna drop you off at Rikers, I’ll pick you up when you learn to be good.”
NO YOU ARE NOT.
I could not believe what she was doing. We were driving over the bridge. It seemed like the concrete bridge shined and hovered magically over the complete darkness.
WHERE IS IT! I DON’T SEE IT!
“We gotta go through the guard post first.”
MOM, YOU HAVE TO TURN AROUND! YOU CAN’T DRIVE TO THE GUARD POST.
She had a lightness in her voice that meant she was torturing us to amuse herself, so I wasn’t that worried.
WE ARE GONNA GET IN TROUBLE!
She isn’t really gonna, I tried to whisper to my little brother. He was wide-eyed, terrified and quiet as usual.
“Sure I am,” she called out in glee from the front seat.
MOM! WE’RE ALMOST AT THE GATE. TURN AROUND!
She could barely contain her laughter. The car slowed down and my brother and I curled up into little balls on the floor behind the seats.
She chatted with the security guard and eventually backed up and turned the car around. She laughed at us, waving her arm into the backseat.
Confident now that she was not going to drop us off at Rikers, I complained,
WHY DID YOU TURN AROUND! I WANTED TO SEE THE JAIL!
“Look back,” she said, driving back over the bridge towards home. “It’s right there.” I didn’t see the towering and dark building of my imagination. I saw only regular looking lights and buildings. It may as well have been the Bronx. It was like anywhere else, except we couldn’t go there, even if we wanted to.
* * *
TOP 5 WAYS TO GO TO SLEEP
1) Play Johnny Johnny Whoops with my fingers
2) Get my mom to tickle my back and sing me Beatles songs
3) Count backwards from 500 by 3’s
4) Have elaborate fantasies while humping my stuffed animals
5) Imagine I am on a fluffy cloud with the Carebears
* * *
I was seven years old when there was a string of attempted escapes from Rikers. I personally thought that our fig tree was a great hiding place and I was terrified that one of the escapees would realize this too. My grandma had constructed what was, to me, an intricate clubhouse hideaway deep within the trees, but in reality was a rotting piece of wood placed between branches that made it easier for her to climb up and pick the figs. The fig tree was encased in netting so the “stupid-a birds” couldn’t get to the figs and this netting blocked out the world completely. I only considered the dirty plank of wood a clubhouse hideaway in theory, as I was one of those girls that took off screaming when a bee wandered by. Beetles, ants, and waterbugs were the stuff of nightmares. I was already forced to coexist with roaches—if I wanted to refill a glass of water in the middle of the night, I had to dodge the cockroaches flitting across the floor and the surface of the sink.
My grandfather used to say, “Sara, that bug is afraid of you.”
NO, NO GRANDPA! THAT BUG CAN LIVE ON ME AND I WOULD NEVER KNOW.
I could feel a tickle but wouldn’t be sure where it came from. It could saunter into my ear and I could go deaf. It could go up my nose and I wouldn’t be able to get it out. Things that small can work their way in you and live inside you and disease you and fuck you up.
* * *
My father and I watched the news reports of the Rikers escapees.
DAD, WHAT IF THEY COME TO OUR HOUSE?
“They wont come to our house.”
BUT WHAT IF THEY DO? ARE WE GOING TO LET THEM IN?
This was a dilemma for me. If prisoners escaped, it seemed cruel to force them to go back to where they escaped from and I didn’t like the idea of being mean. Then again they were probably murderers and would most likely kill us all, if my grandparents didn’t kill them first.
“No Sara, we aren’t going to let them in.”
BUT WHAT IF THEY COME TO THE HOUSE! DAD! DAD! THEY ESCAPED! IT’S RIGHT DOWN THE BLOCK! THIS KIND OF THING HAPPENS FOR REAL!
“Sara, listen to me, the last thing they’d wanna do is hang around here.”
BUT THEY NEED TO RUN THROUGH HERE!
“Maybe, but they will run right past us. Trust me, this is the last place they wanna hide. They wanna be hundreds of miles away. They’ll probably go to Europe or somethin.”
I took a breath. His argument made sense. FINE. OK.
* * *
One night, I watched mice chase each other into my room. They scurried in, one after the other, ran in tight circles around one of the legs at the foot of my bed, and disappeared back out the door, like a dream.
“The stupid-a mouse.” My grandma pulled out a glue trap with a mouse stuck to it and my eyes widened. They were so alive, these little furry things, nothing like the living-dead zombie cockroaches I was so used to.
She tossed the mouse into a plastic bag, threw it on the floor and stomped on it with her socked foot. She wasn’t even wearing a shoe.
GRANDMA! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
“What? I gotta kill, it’s a stupid-a mouse.”
GRANDMA! CAN’T YOU JUST LET THEM FREE?
“What? So they can come back in my house?” She stamped her foot down on the bag one more time.
OH MY GOD! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!
When my mother got home I tried to appeal to her. “Can’t you tell grandma not to crush the mice?”
My mother laughed. “She grew up on a farm, Sara. That’s what you do.”
* * *
One night at my windowsill vigil I heard a chain rattling.
Our backyard was divided into two sections: the garden, and the little concrete area where our dog used to live. Between the two was a gate, chained and padlocked at night. I couldn’t see him but I heard someone pulling at the gate, trying to free it from the chains, trying to get in. I froze. This was it. What should I do? The rattling continued. Was he a psychopath? A zombie? I ran to get my mother. She came with me to my window. She listened. She woke up my father. Oh my god.
TELL DAD HE HAS TO BRING A BAT!
HE CAN’T CAN’T GO DOWN BY HIMSELF! DON’T LET HIM!
WHY DON’T WE HAVE A GUN! MOM! WE NEED TO GET A GUN!
I hid under my blankets. A few minutes later, the rattling stopped.
My mom appeared in the doorway, laughing. “You had me scared!” she said.
It turned out that the new tenant who had just moved into our illegal walk-in apartment had set up a punching bag outside. I supposed I liked the idea of Rikers escapees pondering breaking into our apartment in the middle of the night, but changing their minds once they saw the guy downstairs, topless, sweaty, and practicing his crap-beating skills.
I was exhausted.
“It was nothing, Sara. Nothing to be afraid of. Go back to sleep.”
She paused in the doorway, then walked through towards my bed. “Here, scoot over, I’ll tell you a story. Which one you wanna hear?”
“I wanna hear about living with the Carebears in the clouds.”
“Okay baby, close your eyes. Imagine this. You’re on a big fluffy cloud…”