Personal stories about my life, starting at 12 years old.

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Memory Four: Secret Trip To Palm Springs

It was early morning and the sun was bright. The sky a flawless shade of blue, and the air crisp, clear and cold.

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…

Memory Three: The Cigarette Shack

One more chore was added to our list. Anna and I were required to work in Chris’s cigarette shack on the weekends. It was a 12ft x 12ft shack made out of plywood, next to I-10 at the Banning pass. Chris’s cigarette shack sat like a discarded shoebox on the dusty side of Hadley’s Fruit Orchard.

The fast pace handling of people on their way to vacation in Palm Springs created a barely manageable, but fun level of chaos. It was in that shack that my deficient math skills really came to light. I was terrible at giving back correct change, which resulted in tourists buying a whole lot of cigarettes at a bargain price.

We worked up to 10 hours a day, serving individuals and large groups of people who came by bus from all over the country to see the desert, and buy tax-free cigarettes. We didn’t mind the work, as it gave us a chance to have contact and socialize with people, if for only as long as a transaction lasted

Mom stayed with us when we worked in the shack because she was afraid someone would run off with Anna and me. It also offered the three of us a chance to spend time together and talk without Chris around.

Mom grew increasingly distracted and somber, I could see she was becoming disillusioned with Chris and the fact that, he wasn’t her knight in shining armor.

I had seen this face many times before, and knew it was a precursor to another move. She asked if Anna and me if we were happy? We both replied, “We hate it here, Chris is mean, the kids on the reservation hate us and we hope to leave before he has a chance to really hurt us.” Mom knew what that meant.

I told her that we weren’t going to school, that we just hid down near the dogs, avoiding the school bus.

Mom started crying and whispering an apology to us. She said, “I know I have been a terrible mother. I’m sorry that I dragged you both into this horrible family.” She wiped her eyes and then said, “I don’t know what to do. Chris wants to get married. What should I do?” I immediately said “NO! You can’t marry him!”

Mom sat on a crate crying, I was so familiar with her cries, the way she blew her nose only using her right hand, and the residue the Kleenex left behind on her cheeks and eyelashes.

It struck me that she had the same cry for everything. It didn’t matter if she was crying because she was over weight, if a boyfriend left her, or if we didn’t have enough money to live off.
It was always the same cry, same intensity, same words of despair and self-deprecation, punctuated by more crying, blowing and wiping.

Her tears traveled the same route, with the same speed each and every time. I just watched them fall from her eyes, down the ravine that had been carved into her cheeks from all the other tears that had come before.

My mother was physically stunning—movie star beautiful. I knew she had a freakishly high IQ, although, it was always lost on me in light of the repeatedly bad choices she made.

Mom had been raised in an orphanage home in Memphis, Tennessee. Most of her early childhood consisted of regular beatings and being locked in dark closets. As a matter of fact a dark closet is where she woke up once after being held under a water-filled bathtub by one of her caretakers. Mom told me, “She crossed over and met her guardian angel, who folded her wings around her, gave her a hug and told her she had to go back.”

While mom continued to cry and apologize, Anna hugged her. I decided I had had enough and tried convincing her that she didn’t need to put up with Chris or people like Chris. She just needed to decide that she wanted a different life, make that her final decision and then stick to it.

She stopped blowing her nose and crying…she actually took a few moments to just look at me, and it was as though she was meeting me for the first time. She said, “How do you know so much and you are only 12 years old?” I said “ I don’t know very much, I don’t think you have to be smart to know that if you change the way you do things, for example the bad men you choose, you will get different results. It’s just common sense.” I didn’t add that I had read it in one of her self-help books.

Mom looked scared, confused and uncertain of how to get us out of the current mess we had been living in for the past 8 months.

I looked at Anna and Mom and asked, “Are we done here?” Mom said, “Yes.” I asked if we could go back to San Francisco, she replied, “I don’t have enough money to make that drive and pay for a place to live”. She was right and I said “Then let’s go to Palm Springs it will be easier to make a plan from here and find some where to live, we shouldn’t just leave in the middle of the night without anywhere to go”.

In between busloads of tourists we spoke in low whispers working out the plan and excuse we were going to use to get enough time away from Chris and to slowly start removing our things and make our move to Palm Springs.

I was scared, but I didn’t tell mom or Anna, because I didn’t want them to be scared. I was concerned if Chris figured out what we were up to, we would never be heard from again. But our spirits were raised by the prospect of being released from what felt like hell on earth.

The last busload of tourist came and went. The sun had already disappeared over the mountains. It was getting cold and I was sunburned and covered in a layer of dust from the day. I heard the sound of Chris’s truck making it’s way across Hadley’s parking lot, I reminded Anna and mom not to act happy or light or he would know we were up to something.

Before Chris drew any closer, I took mom by the hand and said “You are not going to change your mind, right? If we stay here, Anna and I are not going to make it, do you understand?” She hesitated, then slowly and quietly replied, “I promise, I won’t change my mind.”

Memory Two: A Leg in My Childhood Journey

Over the next several weeks Anna and I Became more settled with life on the reservation, but we didn’t like it any more than the first day. Mom enrolled us in the nearest public school, it wasn’t on the reservation, but the reservation kids attended. I don’t remember the name of it, I’ll just call it school No. “7”.

I didn’t allow myself to keep much about that school as a memory. I don’t recall the teachers, school rooms, hallways, lockers, or cafeteria. The only memory I have and it’s vivid was how much the kids didn’t like us.

I quickly learned of the long-held grudge the Native Americans, at least the ones we knew and came in contact with, had against white people. I understood how after being compromised, lied to, betrayed, and beaten one is usually left with deep fear and mistrust. Their grievances were generations old, mine only 12-years old.

After several weeks at our new school Anna and I realized we were going to be relentlessly pursued and beat up by the other kids and not even the teachers were going to intervene on our behalf. There wasn’t anyone or anywhere to go to for help and protection, so, for the time we lived on The Morongo Indian reservation we hid. We didn’t like it, but it was far safer than being at school.

Most mornings, after Anna and I fed the animals, instead of walking out to the main road to catch the school bus, we stayed down at the old shack next to where the animals were kept. Winter in the desert could bring freezing cold temperatures, but we nestled ourselves into a corner and huddled together for warmth.

Our plan was to create as much of a routine as possible. We filled the hours with teaching each other and playing games. I decided what Anna was going to learn and she decided what I was going to learn. I figured all we would do in school anyway was to read and memorize things and that we could do for ourselves.

I loved to read so I was in charge of giving spelling tests, Anna was very good at math, so her job was to teach me how to multiply and divide. For recess we played— Say, Say Oh Playmate, Mary Mack and several other hand clapping games, or guessing games like, I Spy.

I Spy was always a dead end, because we either spied dirt, a dog, a cock, a mountain or a tree and that was the extent of the game. I spy made me feel sad. I didn’t want to do visual searches of the ugly things we were surrounded by. I wanted to daydream and think about the good places we had been and the people that I had met and still loved, like Sarah McCoy and Mary.

Daydreams often became a litany of unanswerable questions. I wondered why we had to deal with people and situations I was convinced other children didn’t have to deal with. Why so much poverty, violence, and pain? What made people do crazy things? I wondered if people could change for the better even if they appeared soulless.

For no good reason, I chose to trust an inexplicable knowingness deep in my heart that life could be cleaner, prettier, calmer and more joyful. Even in the scariest, darkest moments there was a palpable peaceful-presence within and around me that never left. Out of this presence came my hopes and dreams.

The school bus continued to come every morning. From our hiding place, Anna and I could hear it stop, open its decrepit yellow doors, wait a few moments and proceed to drive away empty handed.

Anna, Justin, Donny and Me-Sacramento CA

Memory One- The Morongo Indian Reservation

Anna and I were shown to the room we were going to share by Chris’s mom, Mrs. Morgan. The furniture in the room was old. There was a framed black and white photo of Mrs. Morgan as a young woman with her three son’s Chris, Daniel and Lee, surrounded by little knickknacks and souvenirs from her life on the dresser.

Our new room smelled like a lethal combination of formaldehyde, mold and stale air. I sat on the edge of the bed trying to adjust to my new life, while she showed Anna and me which drawers we could use, although I chose to keep my things in the paper bag I had brought them in.

Mrs. Morgan stood silently studying us for a few moments, then turning to leave told us to be in the kitchen at 6:00 PM.

With Mrs. Morgan safely out of the room and the door closed, Anna said “I hate it here, Chris is mean, he’s already yelled at mom twice and he keeps asking about you. I said to Anna, “Why would he be asking about me?” Anna replied “I think he heard from Daniel that you’re pretty.”

Anna said this apologetically and obviously concerned by what it meant for me. I felt sick to my stomach and started trembling. Anna hugged me and said “Don’t worry Elena, we’ll sleep together and just do what we did in Hayward. If one of us goes to take a shower, we both go, okay? It’ll be alright, please don’t be scared. You know we won’t be here for long, we’ll move soon, we always do.”

I started crying and said “I wish the boys were here. I really miss them. I wish we could go back to San Francisco.”

From the other side of the house we could hear Chris calling for us and honking the horn of his truck. We ran outside to find Mom and Chris in the truck telling us to jump in the back. We didn’t drive far, just several hundred yards down an old dusty road behind the house we were staying in. Chris was taking us on a tour to see where he kept his animals or rather hid his animals.

Anna and I stopped cold in our tracks when we saw tied to chains, connected to metal stakes in the ground a sea of Pit Bulls, growling, barking and lunging at us.

Anna was scared and started asking mom why he had all these Pit Bulls. Chris was trying to say something to me from 12 feet away, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the loud roar of barking dogs.

Chris waved me over to where he was standing I politely shook my head and mouthed “No thank you!” He yelled louder, “Come on, don’t be scared, they are really sweet dogs”! He walked over to retrieve me from the petrified ground I was standing on. Mom and Anna followed. Chris showed me to a big wooden barrel that held the dog food and started demonstrating how to feed the dogs. I thought he was just trying to give me a little peek into his world as a famous and respected dog trainer/fighter/killer. But unfortunately for me, I was actually receiving a lesson in how to feed the dogs, because as it turned out, feeding the dogs was going to be one of my chores while living under the Morgan roof. It went along with feeding the cocks that he fought and incinerating the trash….

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