It’s eight o’clock, and my dad’s still not home from work. Mom is making one phone call after another to the bars around town. I am on the sofa working on my Romeo and Juliet book report. The report is due tomorrow for my seventh-grade honors English class. Romeo and Juliet is my favorite Shakespeare play. Unlike most people, I like the fact that there is not a happy ending. It’s more like real life than Mom’s Harlequin romance novels.
“Is John Mantz there? This is his wife Judy. Have you seen him? Fuck, well, if he comes in, tell him to call me.”
After about five of those calls, Mom throws the telephone against the wall and starts pacing the house. I jump up from the sofa. My heart is pounding.
“There goes another phone,” Jackie says louder than she should. Jackie always argues with Mom.
I put my fingers against my lips and shake my head at Jackie. We’re twins, and she knows that this is my “not a good idea” head shake.
“He’s probably with that drunk Johnny at some shithole with a bunch of other low lifes,” Mom says as she picks up the busted phone from the floor.
I nod. She’s probably right, but I am too afraid to say so in case it sets her off.
Earlier she got mad because we were watching Good Times.
“Turn it off,” Mom said with a glare that meant she was serious. “I hate that show. It’s all about the fucking ghetto, why do you want to watch that?”
I knew better than to protest, even though it was my favorite episode of Good Times — the one where Penny, played by Janet Jackson, gets taken away from her abusive mother and moves in with the neighbor, Willona.
Mom starts in again.
“What an asshole, leaving me alone with you fucking kids while he’s out getting drunk. I should have never married that white son-of-a-bitch. My brother Roland told me not to. Said he was a borracho.”
What am I supposed to say? It reminds me of the way Romeo and Juliet’s families refuse to let them be together, but in this case, Mom’s family was right. Mom and Dad are bad for one another — some might say cursed.
I nod when Mom looks at me. When she looks away, Jackie pinches me and points out the door, like ‘we should run.’ I know why we can’t and mouth the word Annie at her. Jackie sighs.
Annie is our little sister, and Mom’s favorite.
“Annie, Annie, Annie!” Mom screams out the screen door. Annie doesn’t answer.
“Mom, she’s probably in her room,” I say, hopping off the couch. I run down the hall into Annie’s room.
Annie is hiding in her usual spot on the side of her bed against the wall playing with her Baby Fresh Doll. I love her long straight hair and run my hand down her silky, perfectly combed tresses. Her hair is straight and beautiful like Juliet’s. Jackie and I have short, kinky, curly hair. Annie looks up at me and smiles. She’s only ten but she is neat and organized.
“Annie,” I whisper, grabbing her by the arm to pull her up.
“You’re gonna make it worse. Come on.”
“Annie, you get out here,” Mom screams.
I push Annie down the hallway toward the kitchen where Mom is pulling at her hair. That’s never a good sign.
Mom grabs her keys and says, “Fuck it, I’m leaving him. C’mon Annie.”
She’s going to leave without us again. I look at Annie’s face and she looks like a scared little rabbit. I can feel one of my headaches coming on. I decide to speak up. What if they die in a car accident? Anything can happen when Mom is in one of her moods.
Mom interrupts me, “You twins are coming too. We can go stay with my brother. Go pack some things.”
I look down at my report. It’s basically finished, I just need to add the conclusion. There’s nothing I can do. To bring it up would just make Mom angry.
Jackie and I rush to our bedroom before Mom can leave without us. When Mom is pissed at Dad, she always leaves with Annie. “She was a good baby, she never cried. Not like you twins.” Mom often says. Mom says Annie reminds her of her mother who died when she was fourteen.
I sometimes picture my mom getting in an accident and her Pinto catching on fire with Annie inside. The thought of it makes my stomach hurt.
“She’s going fucking nuts,” Jackie says. “She’s getting worse. It’s no wonder Dad doesn’t want to come home.”
I nod, knowing she’s right and say, “C’mon, just hurry and pack.”
“And don’t fight with her,” I warn Jackie. Jackie shrugs her shoulders. Jackie knows she sets my mom off. Jackie makes Mom see red, probably because she’s my dad’s favorite.
I stuff a pair of underwear and jeans in my backpack and a grab a couple of dog-eared Harlequin romance novels. Mom has a whole library of them.
I run out of the room as I hear Mom revving the engine of her Pinto. Jackie follows close behind, and as we run out of the house we see that Mom is already backing out of the driveway.
The day is gray and overcast and casts our cul-de-sac in shadow. A couple of the neighbor boys are outside and looking our way. I go to school with one of them and give a little wave. I hope they didn’t hear Mom cussing.
Annie is hunching over in the front seat, hiding from the neighbor boys’ prying eyes. Mom yells, “God damn it Annie, sit up straight!” Annie sits up.
I wave at Mom to stop the car, and I yank open the door and slide into the backseat with Jackie right beside me. Mom screeches off.
Our neighborhood flies by. Mom flies past the park we always run to when she kicks us out. My friend Christy lives in the Section 8 apartments across the street.
Mom runs a red light at Grove and takes the on ramp to the 10 west; she keeps muttering under her breath.
“Goddamn asshole, leaving me with the fucking kids all the time.”
I want to scream at her to shut up, but I don’t, because she’s liable to hit one of us and lose control of the car if I do. Instead, I stay quiet and open my Harlequin book. I hate reading in the car, it makes me carsick, but it takes my mind off of things. All Harlequin books are similar. They always have a happy ending.
After reading for a couple of minutes, I get a headache. When I tell my mom I’m feeling carsick, she just makes a face and doesn’t pull over to get me a 7UP like she would if she were in a good mood. She tells me to roll down the window and breathe in the wind.
Soon, we hit the 57 freeway which leads to Orange County. We pass Brea and then Fullerton. Jackie and I make faces at people in cars and have to pinch each other to keep from laughing out loud at their reactions.
As we pass the Anaheim stadium, the car jerks suddenly and Mom yells “shit” and pounds the steering wheel.
She turns the station on the radio to the traffic report. The radio announcer says that the 57 is backed up due to an accident. The traffic eases up a bit, and Mom gets off on Katella, the Disneyland exit, and my sisters and I marvel at the Matterhorn in the distance. Its fake snow-covered peaks are visible from the street.
“Space Mountain is better than the Matterhorn,” Jackie says in a matter-of-fact voice.
“No way, the Matterhorn is better,” I retort. There’s the snow monster; Space Mountain doesn’t have a snow monster.”
“Yeah but Space Mountain is way faster,” Jackie replies. “Way faster, right Annie?”
Annie turns to look at both of us and says in a quacking voice, “I like Space Mountain.”
Jackie and I start laughing; we love her Donald Duck voice. Neither of us can do it and Annie will never do it on command, no matter if we beg her, not even if we hit her. She only does it when she wants to.
Annie starts doing the voice again, saying “I love Disneyland” over and over, moving her head from side to side.
Jackie and I clutch ourselves in giggles.
My mom screeches, “Girls, be quiet.”
I put down my book and lay my head against the window. I dream about being on a terrace and waiting for Romeo to climb up and save me. The minute I wake up, I realize I left my book report on the table.
It’s dark outside, and we are on the downhill slope of an unfamiliar mountain road. The road twists and turns, and Mom cusses up a storm as she rides the brakes.
“Fuck, god-damnit,” Mom shouts, turning the wheel.
I can smell the brakes and make the mistake of asking Jackie what the smell is.
Hearing me, Mom twists her head like in The Exorcist to look at us and says with spit flying out of her mouth, “It’s your motherfucking dad’s fault we’re lost.”
I know I shouldn’t say anything, but I can’t seem to stop myself from asking her, “Where are we?”
Mom gives me another glare in the mirror.
“It looks like Sleepy Hollow,” Jackie says.
She’s right. There are large trees lining the roads and old houses that look like something out of a fairy tale. The car swerves to the left, and another car comes around the turn, almost sideswiping us. Annie screams, and Mom pulls over to the side of the road and stops the car and gets out.
I watch as Mom walks down the dark road away from us. I can hear her crying through the glass.
“Where the hell is she going?” Jackie says. “She’s a nutcase. She’s gonna get hit by a car.”
“Or we will,” I say, reaching over the front seat to turn on the hazard lights.
I can hear Annie whispering a Hail Mary. I cross myself and bow my head. In what seems like an hour but is probably much less, Mom comes back. When I look at her, she smiles and starts the car. Jackie is about to say something, but I poke her into silence. In less than ten minutes, we are sitting at a roadside coffee house, drinking hot chocolate. Mom says that she called her brother from the pay phone and knows where she is going now.
When we get to Roland’s house, it’s after ten. His wife, Sara, opens the door and says in a welcoming voice, “Mijas. We have the sleeping bags out for you.”
I smile at her. Aunt Sara is always welcoming. My cousin Carol, who is in her teens, runs up and gives all of us a big hug. My headache eases.
Mom and Sara sit at her dining-room table speaking Spanish. They are talking about my dad. Sara is telling Mom that we can live with them. Mom is shaking her head no. “I love him,” she says in Spanish. After a little while, Mom is in a better mood and laughs and jokes about my dad’s carousing.
Carol helps Annie with her sleeping bag, while Jackie places her sleeping bag by the fireplace. I lay my sleeping bag underneath the pool table and stare up at the bottom of the pool table, thinking about my book report.
The next morning I am in my English class. My teacher is going from desk to desk collecting reports. My book report is at home on my desk. I spent hours on the report. I read Romeo and Juliet three times. Shakespeare knew his shit. I thought we would have time to go home and get my report. But we didn’t have time. Mom just dropped us off and wouldn’t listen when I told her I needed something. She was late for her shift at the restaurant.
My teacher is couple of desks away from me. Shit, I think to myself. What do I say? Should I say the truth? Dad didn’t come home from work and Mom called bar after bar looking for him and then drove us like a crazy person to her brother’s in Orange County? We almost crashed on the 57 freeway.
“Jenny,” my teacher asks with an expectant nod as she holds out her hand. I am never late with my homework. Maybe it would have been better if we crashed. Then I would have a good excuse for not having my book report. I choose to stay silent and shake my head and look down at my feet. Maybe she will pass me by and talk to me about it later.
“Jenny,” she asks again, tapping me on my shoulder. Ms. Smith is a nice lady but super strict about deadlines. “Is your report in your bag?” I shake my head again and my eyes well up with tears. Fucking shit. This sucks. All the GATE kids are looking at me.
“I had a bad night. I forgot it at home,” I stammer out. “I had to go to Orange County and …”
“You don’t have it?” Ms. Smith says with a question in her voice. She seems surprised. Didn’t I just tell her that? I didn’t sleep last night and my head is pounding and I keep picturing the book report sitting on the table. This is not my fault. I look at her and raise my eyebrows and say “No” with the o drawn out. All the kids in class laugh, and Ms. Smith shakes her head at me. “I’ll see you after class,” she says. She does not look happy.
After class, Ms. Smith sits down across from me and says in a kind voice, “Jenny, you can turn the paper in tomorrow. I won’t penalize your grade, because you have never been late. Is something going on at home?” My headache releases, and I want to tell her all about it but don’t know how.
“Just the usual,” I say with a shrug as I grab my bag and get up from the chair. “I promise I will turn it in first thing tomorrow. It’s already done. I really appreciate it,” I say.
If I hug her I will cry, so instead, I walk out the door with a wave.
Juanita E. Mantz (“JEM” or Jenny) grew up in Ontario, California, with her two sisters in the 1970s and 1980s with an alcoholic father and manic mother. Juanita loved to read, and books were her source of escape into another reality. After dropping out of high school at seventeen, Juanita took her GED and waitressed her way through UC Riverside and USC Law. After law school, Juanita worked at large law firms in Houston and San Francisco, but moved back to the Inland Empire after her father died suddenly. Juanita is a Deputy Public Defender in Riverside, where she specializes in representing the mentally ill. Her nonfiction stories and essays have been published in The Acentos Review, As/Us: Women of the World, East Jasmine Review, Inlandia Journal: A Literary Journey, Lifetime, The Riverside Lawyer, and XO Jane. She is a four-time participant in VONA’s Summer Writing Workshop, and this piece is an excerpt from her YA memoir in progress, “My Inland Empire: Hometown Stories.” Juanita’s memoir focuses on her chaotic upbringing and her escape through books, as well as her struggle with her mixed-race identity. You can read her “Life of JEM” blog at lifeofjemcom-jemmantz.blogspot.com. Selected by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo.
Image © Lin Pernille Photography via Flickr Creative Commons.