There’s nothing like being so-called Caucasian whitey white girl under the reign of Jamaicans telling you how to wash your laundry in dirty water. The sun beat our pale skins, we dumped soap into cold water and Mama Precious showed us, Ms. Anne Marie told us, how to wash our white button shirts and blue cinch pinch shorts. The water turning brown, staff making a swish swish pretend you have a washboard and are scrubbing them on it sound. Wash your white shirts more than your blue shorts, one of them said, but man if I didn’t think it was the other way. If I could run, I woulda, but so many hills in those flip-flops and we were making Saint Anne’s Parish all sorts of money. “Me cyan’t belieeve,” they’d say, chewing the orange flesh off of mango seeds throat grunting eating chicken feet I curled my nose up at right from the bowl. “It’s good,” Ms. Precious said. She was big, chewing the skin and bone, making that grunting sound. We stood in line, didn’t make a sound. We didn’t want consequences, Cat 5. I can’t talk about it. I tried. I studied the dictionary instead. Wrote poems with words. Anathema. Curse the family name. I did. Misanthrope. Like my good old grumpy Grandpa Bean. Man, he was grumpy. But he always smiled at me. Grandma Bean took photos of me naked in the bathtub, told me she was gonna wallop me for sessing her.
The sky was so blue nearer the equator. Relentless sun. I prayed for rain. It seldom came. Imagine sun so many months out of the year. It was insane. I missed fog city, my streets. Golden Gate Park. Whiskey. Panhandling. Street kids. Trouble. Roaming. Being free inside. Being free from authority, just keep away from the police. We did jumping jacks. I ran so fast I under self-guided directive in my canvas army trousers and flip-flops I almost passed out. The flip-flops were to keep us from running out of the concrete gate. Like sneakers would’ve helped us get away from that place. It was a former resort made of cinder blocks chain link fenced off from the ocean. Crabs roamed freely in the area where staff washed laundry in the machines. Jumping jacks! I shouted, now I was the instructor shouting orders. Seminars where they played “True Colors” by Cindi Lauper. Reading Job and the AA Bible. Finding solace in the title ALCOHOLIC. That’s what I had decided I was before I even started getting black out drunk. goddess told me I was Job, and there was gonna be no reason, rhyme, or end to the suffering, so I took my pen and I wrote and wrote and wrote my story.
Back then I had to run away to make a point. Children were considered property of their parents, especially teenagers. We had few rights. I had no rights after leaving California.
It was a relief to be on another continent. I hated America. I never wanted to go back, tho when I got to Jamaica and got off the plane I gasped at the humidity, couldn’t breathe. I felt sick. The car ride and the honking and the offer for fast food I passed over the pot hole roads, tin can roofs, shacks on the corner, Ting and Shaggy always BIGGIE always dirt, dark, and dancing people, bright fluorescent paint on buildings. Goats tied up outside. I knew they weren’t pets. They served us goat stew for dinner sometimes. Poor goats. No running too fast. No making run plans. No strategizing. No talking back to the brainwashing. Sometimes threats I’m gon take your journals away, why should we let you be journaling, meanwhile me mad scribbling Jim Morrison, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Beastie Boys. You’re too poetic, you’re over describing. Some girl pulled me aside and said maybe this is the way you actually write? Without her I’d have questioned myself, died inside. It’s simple. You only put 80 percent in, they yelled at us in big warehouse rooms, made us beat towels, confess our sins, curse our parents. I stared out at the tall green mountains, was that a hawk, eagle or falcon? I got yelled at by the emotions group for “avoiding” when I told the truth why I was staring, because I was taking in all this beauty. I remember sitting outside under those green hills for miles, the sound of the ocean faint and wild, Ms. Dacres, the headmaster of the school for wayward youths heading the group. She was so put together and pretty, the girls so white sitting next to her beautiful dark skin, silky shined. She leaned her long arms over her knee, looked at me like she cared. Kyrsten, do you mind sharing? They made me change my name back from Cat. They made me cut off my long blonde punk bangs. Too much of an image, they said. I cried. But now, we were circled and I was taking in nature. Nature I’d run to greet from the time I was barefoot running in the creek dad screaming PUT ON YOUR SHOES you’re going to hurt yourself so loud all the neighbors could hear. The boys ran with no shoes, why not the girls? But here I was, in nature, so much nature, that bird soaring slow towards the mountains, the faint sound of voices talking, “KYRSTEN, what are you looking at?”
“I was looking around at nature, the green hills, that beautiful bird, feeling grateful I’m here,” I said. One girl raised her hand and I looked at her. What do you think, Jessica? “I think you’re AVOIDING,” said the girl, real harsh, startled me, I was sensitive, that’s what my mom and dad said, but this was weird. Then one by one the girls launched in. I wasn’t facing the real truth. I wasn’t telling the truth. I wasn’t sharing my feelings. My words were BULL. Ms. Dacres, pretty as she was, agreed and I was shocked. What the? I knew something was off, I was telling the truth. But they started programming a little voice that said, “Was I?” When I stared at the ocean briefly, glanced, rather, I got put in the worksheets room for a Cat. 5. Run plans. I cried and I cried.
When I first got there I thought I’d get by on charm alone, had the illusion going strong I’d never get into trouble, but two days later, here I was. Sitting in a tiny room on a plastic chair. Staring at a piece of paper with multiple choice questions. Holding a crayon. We were listening to The Importance of Being Earnest. Then filling out worksheets. We were listening to The Scarlet Letter. Anna Karenina. Every night still, I wrote in my journal. Wrote letters to my boyfriend they never sent. Wrote letters to my parents, they told them I’d lie if I said the place was a pit. That we exaggerate. Don’t believe them, the manual explained. Some letters they never sent. My parents went on national television, said I’d turned into another person, my dad telling the newscaster I was an ALCOHOLIC they had no CHOICE but to lock me up and send me away overseas, it was SUGGESTED by my psychiatrist in the walnut creek hospital when they’d locked me up after finding me five months out, my second five-month bout on the streets. Kyrsten was drinking a twelve-pack a day my dad said. He lied. I drank whiskey, vodka sometimes.
The groups, the confessions, always new sins. I thought about looking at the ocean. The concrete floors and metal drains in the outside bathrooms. The chain link fence. The boys on the other side of the building in their khaki pants being pepper sprayed. You’re lucky, said a teen staff guard boy, he’d been transferred from Samoa. You don’t get beaten here, he said.
I ran away because my dad was violent and I forgot but it got in my bones and followed my everywhere, I was running from my mind, blind father piano voice obsession with narrow Mormon choice, sins, I will not dig that up. I already experienced it once, why go back twice. His dad was violent. My boyfriend was verbally abusive, controlling and violent. They were all holding me hostage, God, I can’t ever say I’ve been free inside, until tonight. I no longer fight, I surrender.
In Jamaica I learned to surrender. Things I learned to surrender included: My ego. My wit. The view of the ocean. My image. My thoughts. My regrets.
The air was so humid. I had nothing left to give, felt beaten. I was 15, but felt 80. I had hitchhiked from California across the country. Because. I wanted my freedom. My dad lusted after me. Read my journals. I know what you did with Jeremy, he said. My mother protected him. At 14, I hated men. I wanted a puppy. A van. I wanted to travel the world. I needed an ID card, a passport. Teenagers have so few rights. I was on the run in America, at the mercy of truckers and cops. Look, this was before we all had cell phones or laptops.
I was hooked on running by foot. My dad threw out all my belongings every time I left, not a trace. Then he’d lie about it when I came back. I have your stuff here, he said. I knew it wasn’t true. Just like my journals where I’d written what really happened were gone, so was everything I’d ever owned. Lasher, by Anne Rice. He didn’t like me reading about the devil. My patchwork pants and my tie die shirts. He didn’t get the hippy generation.
Abuse was not OK. I was Cat. I slipped away. I cried when my cats died or disappeared. Spaz, showing up on the front porch. I went to pet her and she was stiff. I cried and cried. Her name was garbage, she was ours anyway said the neighbor boys. I walked away. Fuck that. She was my cat.
Garfield. We buried him in the backyard. So many cats. Sasha. Midnight. Mouser who got hit by a car. The neighbor boy told me and I ran to get him. He was barely alive. I carried him home, sat him on a towel and we all watched him kick and meow, then slip away. I can feel him, I said. He’s an angel now.
My mom was allergic, didn’t like them inside. So I played outside with the cats.
Now I was running like a cat. When you mistreat a cat, it slips out, disappears.
That’s what I did.
Every time. Further and further. New York, Florida, Canada.
I ran and I ran. Truckers, cops, Greyhound.
Women were few and far between.
Now women are all I see.
Why didn’t I know this before.
I believed in karma. That’s why I didn’t steal. And because Allan told me not to. Allan who was so so hot. Alan in the park. Me, showing off. I needed the boys, I thought. One will save me. But I could only save myself.
I went off with Kara and Tyler.
Singing Indigo Girls in the podium faint sound of the ocean. We were alone, cleaning, me and this blonde girl. I was getting tan. I hadn’t see a mirror in ages. It was marvelous. Tiny rooms, four bunks in each. 8 not us shared the shower. Cold water in the mornings. We lined up for breakfast.
Jamaica. When I returned to the ‘burbs I was grateful for a home and a room of my own. Sharing a small space with four to six bunk beds topped with other program girls. I remember we moved to a bigger property, tasked with cleaning the big rooms with high ceilings, tile floors.
The locations had been abandoned resorts. We cleaned each other’s pubic hairs off toilets with torn rags past their half-life, enough cleaning solution and we could pass it for clean, making our beds with tight army corners, only sheets, the humid breeze became fresh and sweet and I wrote in my journal nightly, changing to the tune of their grooming. The schedule was rise at 7 a.m., go to sleep at 9 p.m.
No whispering, giggling, talking without permission.