This was the morning we had secretly planned to make our first trip to Palm Springs.
Mom was full of nervous chatter and anticipation. Anna and I were excited, but quiet. I couldn’t think or rather feel how to proceed, if I didn’t stay quiet in my mind and calm in my body. Anna acted as a grounding device and I, our navigator.
At 12 years old, I was practiced at finding our way out of dangerous situations with volatile people, but I needed Anna. We had an unspoken agreement—- we knew we would always sacrifice ourselves in order to keep the other safe, knowing that somehow made me stronger and more courageous than I was by nature.
When the boys lived with us, they were our protectors but when it was just us, I took the lead. The boys refused to make the move to Banning and mom didn’t really want them anymore because, they were in their late teens and I think they made her feel old.
We told Chris that Mom was going to take me to a modeling agency in Palm Springs. I’m not sure I wanted to be a model at this point, but, it seemed a valid excuse for creating a five-hour window of time, without suffering Chris’s ire when we returned.
Initially, he was against our going, but Mom told him I could make a lot of money and would give it to him to keep. Those were the magic words and he agreed.
As we made our way off the reservation onto I-10, I felt like I had been freed from the belly of darkness.
The wind coming around the Banning pass was so strong that it felt as though our car would be swept off the road into a sand dune, but if I had to die, better halfway from hell than in it.
The mountains were huge, and we could see snow on the peaks. Anna and I had never seen snow capped mountains before and were completely captivated.
We pulled into town at approximately 9:00AM. I had never seen streets so clean. As we drove down Palm Canyon Boulevard, I felt as though I had been popped into an alternate dimension. If it hadn’t been for the incessant echo of barking dogs in my ears, reservation dirt on my clothes and the ever-present strangeness of being a stranger, I think I would have completely lost my bearings.
Tall, skinny palm trees lined the sidewalks like wooden soldiers, the storefronts were perfect, not one smudge or speck of dirt anywhere; downtown Palm Springs shimmered like a desert jewel.
Anna was happy, happier than she had been in almost a year, She said “Oh my gosh, Elena, isn’t it beautiful?” With mixed emotions, I answered “yes”.
Anna continued, “Mom, can we live here, please, please, can we live here??” Mom said, “We have to find an apartment that we can afford.
Mom turned to me and asked “Do you like it, Elena, isn’t it beautiful? Let’s get a newspaper and we can see what’s available and make some calls”
Out of the blue Mom said” Ya know what! Before we do anything, I’m going to take my girls to breakfast! How ‘bout that? You guys want to get some pancakes, bacon and fresh juice?” We found a diner, and Mom read apartment descriptions to us as we ravenously made our way through a stack of pancakes.
From the diner, I could see more and more people filling the town as the shops began to open. Everyone looked so clean and important. I watched moms with their kids passing and imagined they had really perfect lives; complete with nice clothes, food, peaceful homes and a school filled with friends.
Mom interrupted my thoughts asking “What’s wrong?” Feeling conflicted I said, “Even if we find an apartment we can afford, I don’t see how we can live here. We don’t belong in a place like this. Look at us and look at them. How am I going to go to school here? I’m going to be so far behind everyone, they are going to think I’m stupid, maybe even retarded. We have missed most of the school year being in Banning. I started crying as I spoke the words, because they were a painful truth that I hadn’t let in before now.
Mom said “Stupid, who are you calling stupid? You are the sharpest cookie I’ve ever met! No one is as smart as you are, Elena. You’re as sharp as they come.” My crying turned into a waterfall of tears. I said, “You’re just trying to make me feel better. How can I be smart after having huge holes in my education and how am I going to keep up with the kids here that have never missed a day of school?”
Anna was fine, she kept eating her pancakes. She wasn’t worried about school, because she was gifted and she knew it. No matter what point we entered a given school year, middle or end, Anna unfailingly got straight A’s.
In between pancake bites Anna sweetly tried to comfort me by saying “I’ll help you Elena; I’ll be your tutor, and Mom is right, you are really smart. You have never gotten us lost or made a bad decision in helping us stay safe. If you are stupid how come you’re never wrong about anything or anybody? And why can you read and understand things that most adults don’t understand?”
Anna’s words trailed in the distance, as I turned my attention back to all of the clean beautiful people that passed. In that moment, I made a promise to myself, that one day, I would be clean and also live a civilized life.
We paid the check, got a couple of dollars in dimes and found a pay phone to start calling on rentals.
Our first appointment was our last.
We entered a ground level apartment complex. It was beautiful and seemingly unreal, compared to the ugliness of where we had been living.
Palm trees and flowers arranged in perfect symmetry lead up to each unit door, which all faced the pool area. It was warm and inviting…it felt like home.
Anna and I immediately started pleading with Mom to get the apartment, Mom said, “We haven’t even been inside yet” we said, “We don’t care, we know it’s going to be beautiful inside, look at the outside, it’s perfect! Mom, please, please can we live here?”
As we made our way to the managers unit to check-in, the manager then proceeded to show us a beautiful two bedroom, two bath apartment that was kitty corner to the school we would attend. The manager pointed from the patio, commenting that it would only take us 30 seconds to get to school in the morning. Immediately, I fell into the pit of fear that lived in my stomach.
We toured the apartment and fell further and further in love. Without hesitation we proceeded to beg Mom on the spot right in front of the manager. Mom said “Well, it’s $50.00 more a month than we can afford. The manager chimed in telling us there were a couple of girls our age that lived in the complex. One of the girls was 10 years old, and then her own daughter, was 13 years old. I pleaded, “Mom, please, please, I’ll get a job and help you pay the rent, please take it!” Mom said, “Yes.”
Anna and I had not attended a birthday party, been given a birthday party, or participated in any social activities in years and the prospect of it made me feel like a normal kid.
Anna and I ran out to the pool, took our shoes off and stuck our dirty feet into the hot jacuzzi. We could hardly contain ourselves over the fact that we were going to be living in such a beautiful place. I said, “You know what this means, Anna? No more feeding pit bulls and cocks everyday, no more trash to incinerate or cigarettes to sell on the weekends.” With that thought, we quietly sat and watched the jacuzzi water wash away the last bit of Indian reservation off our feet.
Mom and the manager made their way out to us after about 30 minutes. Mom had signed a lease and wrote a check for first and last months rent with the money she had saved while living with Chris.
We scooped up our shoes, leaving a trail of wet footprints on the asphalt, while giving Mom a big hug and thanking her for letting us get the apartment. She said,”I’m going to have to get a couple of jobs, so we can keep it.” I reassured her again, that I too would pitch in to help pay the rent.
We were finished with the most important part of our trip that day, but still had one thing left to do… pick up a brochure from Palm Springs Models to take back to Chris.
We made our way across town with the trusty little map we bought at the gas station. Mom pulled up outside Palm Springs Models and told me to run in and grab as many brochures as I could.
As quietly as I could I entered the front door, trying my hardest not to be seen. I went up to the counter and asked the lady if I could have a brochure. She said, “Oh sure hon’. You wanna be a model?” I turned red and replied “No, I’m just getting it for a friend of mine.”
The woman behind the desk paused and asked “How tall are you?” I replied, “5’9 ½, I think.” Then she said how old are you?” I said, “I’m 12 years old, but I’ll be 13 in June.” She continued sizing me up, while getting a little package of materials together for me. She handed everything over, adding, “You know, if you wanna be a model, you probably could be.” I promptly said, “thank you,” turned and walked out the door.
While driving back to Banning, I scoured every inch of the brochure pictures with the beautiful models. I thought, if I could be like one of them, my life would be perfect. In a way, I wanted to be frozen, frozen in time, within the confines of an unchanging image that held no thought, no feeling, no sound, no problems, no pain.
We returned to Chris’s house, he came out before mom even had a chance to shut the car engine off. He walked out barefoot, shirt untucked, seething with anger, holding a belt in his hand…