Archives For The Bronx

The Ghost never gave me anything he didn’t take back and sell.  There was one gift he gave me that he never knew about.  At first, neither did I.

I forgave him as he beat me on the last night I’d ever seen him.  That was July 4th, 1999.  With each blow I asked God to forgive him.  I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.  I could tell his pain was worse than mine, in fact I was numb to his blows.

I knew his story.  He told me about how his childhood was stolen from him.  He told me about the pigeon coop.  How he use to train pigeons and built a coop for them on the roof of his building with the help of his stepfather.  Dick is what he called him.  I never found out if that was his real name – short for Richard – or just what he called him.  Dick did what all pedophiles do; gained this nine year old boy’s trust  – seduced him as it were – with the lure of pigeons.  Building a coop and teaching the young, blue eyed boy all about bird flight training.  These were not “street rat” pigeons, mind you, but flights, tiplets… those are the only names I remembered from what he told me.  There are a whole group of bird flyers and trainers all over NYC, the outer boroughs – and the world.  Apparently flying pigeons is a thing.

The Ghost grew up in The Bronx.  In his neighborhood it was not uncommon for there to be coops on the rooftops of buildings.  He told me how he used to run up to the roof every day after school to clean the coop and feed the pigeons.  He spoke about it with such pride.  He use to compete with the other kids on the buildings across the street and a few blocks down.  He’d brag about how he had the cleanest coop and the nicest birds.  One day while he was up there cleaning the coop, Dick came up to have a chat with him.  He stood there with his Brill Creamed hair, thin lips and his pen protector holding always exactly three Bic pens.  He smelled of Old Spice and Doublemint gum.  The Ghost always got a strange feeling when he was around Dick.  He told me something about Dick creeped him out and gave him the chills.  The instincts of a child are powerful.

So, he endured sexual abuse by his stepfather.  Of course he told his mother immediately.  She just stared at him and then told him to stop telling lies.   Accused her golden haired blue-eyed cherub of lying.  Lying and trying to ruin her happiness.  Again.  She’d blamed him for everything since he was three.  He was the bad one and Mickey was the good one.  It had always felt that way, at least.  The Ghost was always trying to win back her love, but his attempts were futile at best.

She blamed him for everything.  You see, when The Ghost was three years old, his mother told him to draw a bath for his brother and himself.  Bathing together was not uncommon, as the boys were only a year apart.  Irish twins, everyone called them.  Proud to take on this big boy job, he marched into the bathroom plugged up the tub with the rubber stopper, and turned one of the handles.  He couldn’t reach the  second handle but he turned the one closest to him.  The one with the letter “H” on it.  He’s seen his mommy do this many times.  She had tossed her finger under the tap but he wasn’t sure why, but he did that to.  The tub began to fill and he gave the Mr. Bubble bottle a squeeze.  He watched the bubbles grow a bit.  He left the bathroom and went to find his brother, Mickey.

Mickey, short for Michael, was in their room.  The Ghost announced it was time for their bath, and as the boys undressed the Ghost pulling his shirt of his head, Mickey shouted, “Last one in is a rotten egg!”  and ran out of the room.  The Ghost wanted to be first in the tub.  He fumbled with is shirt, but got it off.  He started looking for his Popeye doll to bring to the tub.  In the background he could hear the tub filling and his mother talking on the phone in the kitchen.  She was cooking dinner.  Irish stew.  Mickey’s favorite.  The smells were wafting through the small Bronx apartment.  The Ghost was getting hungry.  He found his Popeye doll and turned toward their bedroom door.  Before he could get to the bathroom he heard his brother screaming.  A scary sound unlike any he’d heard before.  The Ghost froze.  He peered out the bedroom door and saw his mother running.  He walked slowly toward the bathroom, the dark wood floorboards creaking under his feet and stopped when he reached threshold of the bathroom.  His mother was screaming “Why did you do this?  Why him?  This is all your fault!”  She cradled Mickey’s shivering body, fell on the floor and rocked her scalded baby in her arms.  Mickey was screaming and crying.  His wrinkled red body was shiny from the water and he had Mr. Bubbles shiny foam bubbles in his hair.  It all happened so fast.  All The Ghost could see was the bright red wrinkled skin on the right side of Mickey’s face and neck.  He looked like a monster from one of the comic books at the corner store.  He’d later learn the monster’s name “Creature from the Black Lagoon”.  It scared him.  That wasn’t Mickey?  What was wrong with him?  I was looking for Popeye.  What happened?  Mommy, what did I do?

Mickey never healed completely.  They were able to do a skin graft, but he spent his life feeling self-conscious and fought off stares all through his adolescence.  Eventually he married and had children of his own.  He grew up hating his brother.  Resenting what he had done to him.  He blamed The Ghost for his disfigurement.  So did their mother.  By the time The Ghost encountered Dick, there was no one to listen.  No one to help.  No one who believed him.

It was the beginning of the end and this child was doomed to a life of mistrust and misfortune.

When he told me this story, I knew The Ghost had given me a gift but I could not identify it at the time.  It took some time for me to come to this realization, but I came to understand that the gift he gave me was gratitude.  Because of his story, I was able to truly appreciate my happy childhood.

It was my happy childhood that saved me when The Ghost’s damaged childhood came to visit him in the form of drugs, alcohol and the abuse he inflicted on my body.  There came a time when I could no longer take his blows.  I could no longer let his words penetrate my spirit.  For years I would tell my story saying I had no choice but to leave.  I had no choice because he beat me out of our home.  The truth is, I knew I could not take one more moment in his presence.  The love was gone long before that night.  I don’t know what made me stay.  If I stayed I knew he would kill me and I wasn’t ready to be dead.

So I left with nothing but the clothes on my back – not even shoes on my feet – and the gift he didn’t even know he had given me.

imagesTime marched on.

Less than three months after leaving my husband, just two years after our wedding day, I moved into my own apartment in Brewster, NY.  It was a two room cottage on a country road littered with stone fences and mile-long gravel covered driveways.  There were trees – pines, oaks and maples – taller than any I had known on Long Island.  My little cottage sat on a ten-acre parcel of land.  The landlord lived in the main house just fifty yards behind the cottage.  His two bear-like dogs, one a sandy colored Labrador and the other a black Rottweiler, roamed the grounds chased squirrels and lounged on the grass at the foot of my front porch.  When inside the cottage only the chirping birds and the occasional whoosh of passing cars on the road beyond the stone fence could be heard.  It was a safe haven, a retreat from the chaos of my former life and I knew I would feel at peace there.  Eventually.

Just two weeks after moving into the cottage, I was offered a student teaching post at a school in The Bronx, some thirty miles from my new home.  I was partnered with an experienced First Grade teacher named Helen.  I quickly came to learn that Helen was well respected by her professional peers for her structured classroom management skills and her firm but loving way with students.  She welcomed me into her classroom and taught me everything I didn’t learn in my graduate studies about what it really meant to be an effective teacher of children.  We worked hard and spent every moment outside of class time planning and preparing for the next session.  Most of the teachers in the surrounding classrooms gathered together in Helen’s room for lunch, checking in about what lessons went well, which copies needed to be made and how we would divide up the preparation of specific subject areas.  We laughed much and shared stories about our students.  I began to fall in love with my new profession and the women who supported my development as a teacher.  Helen invited me to her home after school one day and over drinks I began telling her the story of my former husband and how I escaped from my former life.  Helen did not judge me, or think less of me when I revealed my brutal history.  She simply offered me another drink and looked into my eyes and said, “When you met me, you met God”.  Many years later when I reminded her of this, she did not remember having said it but it was something I never forgot.  The thing is, when angels come into your life, and many have come into mine, they do not always know the impact they are having.

My six week student teaching experience was coming to an end.  I was called into the Principal’s office and offered a Guided Reading position for the Lower School (grades one through four) which began the day after my student teaching position had ended.  It was now six months after I left my husband, with nothing but the tee-shirt and boxer shorts I was wearing – not even shoes on my feet – and here I was with a full-time job in my new profession and friends who made me feel like I was part of their family.  I woke up each morning grateful for another sunrise, another day of work, and another dollar earned.  I was blessed in ways I could not have imagined just a few months before.

When I was not working I felt the need to somehow document my emotions.  I attempted keeping a journal but after a few lame attempts, found words were unable to capture what I was needing to express.  I made all kinds of excuses to myself – the book was all wrong, the pen was the wrong color or thickness, I did not have a comfortable place to write, and worst of all, I could not form a clear sentence.  Then one day, on the phone with my good friend Dawn whom I had met in the bookstore so many years before, she suggested I try painting.  Dawn, who had always been a writer and artist, explained how I could begin by buying just a few acrylic paints in primary colors, a few basic brushes and paper or cheap pre-stretched canvas to begin with and get a feel for the medium.  My next paycheck quickly vanished into the till of a local art store and I began experimenting with mixing colors and simply brushing them onto the canvas.  I was surprised by how the texture, smell and feel of the brush in my hand had the power to let my mind escape into a new artistic experience.  I wasn’t any good, but man, was I having fun.  I began living in a new rhythm of long drives to work, shuffling from grade level to grade level trying to teach kids to read, then the long drive home, and sleepless nights fogged by chain smoking cigarettes and playing with paints.  Weekends were spent getting errands out of the way in the early morning and losing myself in paint and cigarettes, cigarettes and paint.  There were marathon phone calls to Dawn that lasted hours but I never shed a tear.  I sat staring out the window and watched the leaves on the trees turn color and fall to the ground.  I waited expectantly for new buds to bloom on the once dead branches and was altogether unable to articulate my understanding that time was moving forward.  It took almost a year for me to begin to understand the gravity of what I had been through and where I now found myself.

I was living in seclusion, delving deeper and deeper into solitary confinement.  What I perceived to be my haven was actually becoming a self-induced sentence to aloneness and fear.  The strange thing was that I was excelling at my profession.  I was like a robot at work and an indefinable mass when I was alone in that cottage.  The one thing I had hoped for in my auto-pilot state was to have my own classroom.  I felt ready for the professional challenge and was offered a second grade classroom for the following school year.  I was looking forward to spending lazy days in the cottage painting and smoking and generally doing as I pleased.

As we all know, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. As it turned out I could teach, but could not do.  Not for a long while, anyway.