SUNDAY NIGHT I clutched my suitcase, its grey bulk my own island to float on between my divorced parents’ homes. My mom swept into my room and put her hand on my shoulder.
“Your dad thinks you should stay with me an extra week.” Her tone was too bright. My usual schedule was one week at each parent’s house, and I always looked forward to my father’s house with its reliable routines.
“Why?” I bit my lip to keep from crying.
She flitted around our apartment wiping down invisible dust against a window sill without answering. I felt it: something had happened. Maybe nothing more serious than another kidney stone. Or lady troubles: my father already had gone through a string of needy girlfriends prone to hysterical crying and lightning-fast mood changes. Katrina, the newest one, was an enthusiastic aerobics instructor, a quick hugger who frequently kissed my cheeks, or pulled me into a hug. Though her zealous affection sometimes made me shy, I craved it too. She was the first girlfriend of his in years to engage with me in a way that made me feel included, rather than just an unfortunate appendage of my father, who was the desired prize.
“Come to my house any time,” she told me in the first weeks of their dating. Her home was a dark-wood paneled granny unit behind a larger house on the back of a tree-lined property. It had the feeling of a tree house, and her chirpy optimism, offers of sweets forbidden me at home, and the way she bounced on the balls of her feet, made me feel like she and I were getting away with something. By the end of the first month of her dating my dad, despite myself, I already had implanted Katrina in all future visions of our life.
Now, I turned back to my mother. “Is he in trouble?” I asked.
Mom pressed her lips tightly together and patted my knee. “Don’t worry.”
In school the next day, all I could do was worry. Had I done something wrong? What if my dad went to jail? How many times had I painstakingly written him a note on binder paper and taped it to his bedroom door: “Please Daddy, I don’t want you to go to jail. Please stop selling the tomato plants.” I was ten and in fourth grade and knew they weren’t really tomato plants. He told me it was safer if we referred to them that way, not to call them “pot” or “marijuana” because that could get him “into trouble with the law.”
“I got your letter,” he said each time. “I’ll be fine.”
This offhand reassurance was as unconvincing as my mother’s breezy attempts to shrug off terrible things as no big deal because they had already passed; like the month she’d recently spent away at Grove Street, a rehab center for alcoholics to recover. I hadn’t even known she was going, only to come home after school to my dad’s to be told, “Your mom will be gone for a month.” A few days later a chirpy woman on the phone said I could visit in two weeks. “I needed to get better,” is all my mother said to me when I finally saw her. After that we didn’t talk about it again.
The pungent, sweet-rot odor of the plants my father bought and sold seemed proof of their evil potential to attract gun-toting police into our house in the middle of the night, wrenching my father away in handcuffs. I knew this because my mom had taken me by the elbow and pulled me aside once after she caught me telling my best friend Sacha about the tomato plants. “You can’t talk about this to anyone.” She shook her head so hard her permed curls slapped her cheeks. “Your dad could go to jail.”
Normally the lengthening days of late spring speeding toward summer would buoy me with relief, the end of the awful school year in sight. Instead, anxiety twisted through me, my stomach full of acid during class, my knee bouncing beneath the pitted wood of my desk.
A few days into the second week of staying with my mom, I yearned for my dad’s house, where the lunches he prepared were oily peanut butter on gritty whole grain bread but dinner was reliably served at six and he tucked me into bed at eight. Where, even though I lived with a specter of law enforcement busting down our doors, the shape of our routines resembled safety. At my mom’s she often rushed me to school ten minutes late, all eyes on me, and more than a few times had to dash back at lunch time, a McDonalds’ bag steaming with shame.
Three weeks into my prolonged stay at my mom’s, she announced why my dad would be packing up and moving across town soon.
“Your father was robbed.” She was filing her nails and looking past me. She had a breezy style of relaying the most intense things, such that I am still suspicious of cheerful people and bright-sounding promises. She revealed the full details about the robbery in slow, careful snippets, as though by telling me each piece separately, I wouldn’t be prone to dwell on the horror:
My dad’s housekeeper, always kind to me, and her “thug boyfriend” as my mom called him, had chosen a week when I was at my mother’s. Katrina, held down beneath the sheets of their bed. My father bound in ropes to a chair in the garage, commanded to tick off the combination to his safe. The masked boyfriend peeled away the stacks of money and all the “tomato plants” in their tightly-sealed plastic. It would be years before the true terror of the story opened itself up inside me, a decades-delayed anxiety attack as I imagined how close I may have come to losing my father that night beneath the sweaty hand of a man holding a handgun. At age ten however, I stuffed my feelings inward, becoming a clingy, anxious child who would rather spend time with her parents than friends.
Another month later, the air stayed warm late into evening in that way that signaled summer not long in coming. My dad moved to the upscale town of Ross, California, into a house that sprawled, fit for a wealthy Victorian family of ten, not just my father and me. Light pierced each room through huge picture windows. The kitchen — a sea of white — taunted me with its spaciousness, bigger than his entire two-bedroom on Picnic Avenue. I roved its halls like a child in a museum, my own bedroom four times as big as any we’d left behind. This room looked out on a backyard full of walnut trees and shapely bushes, an estate in contrast to the weed-filled jungle behind my mother’s cramped attic apartment where her bedroom and the living room were one, where we ate beneath a ceiling that sloped low, like a cupboard.
Katrina and I shared a giddy glee at the space of this house my dad had somehow, magically found. At her first viewing she adopted a lofty voice, “I think this is called a sun room.”
A house so big, the sun got its own room.
Then she grasped me into one of her signature hugs, and I found myself overwhelmed with the urge to ask if she would move in with us. I knew this was unlikely. Since my parents’ divorce when I was two, the only roommate my father had ever taken was Frederick, his good friend from New York who was like an uncle to me.
By the time my dad fully unpacked in the new house, I had less than a month left of school, and looked forward to long afternoons spent reading in my new room beneath the enormous picture window, and feeding the squirrel that lived in the walnut tree outside. Now, when it was my week to go to my mom’s, I didn’t want to leave this bright new house — like a dream gift that could vanish upon waking. For the first few months I easily pretended that we were like our wealthy neighbors — like musician Huey Lewis, who lived five houses up the road in an estate three times as big, locked behind iron gates. I pretended that my father made a living the same way as the lawyers and doctors who surrounded us on the left and right, who drove off to work in Tiburon and San Francisco in sleek silver Beamers and beetle-black Mercedes Benzes.
Indeed, we played the part. Out went my dad’s practical Toyota, in came a gleaming silver Porsche. For the first time, he took me to Macy’s instead of Clothestime, and allowed me to buy brand names: a peach-colored Guess denim skirt, a purple Esprit ensemble, one Benetton sweater, all of which I would wear to threads.
Before his money started to come in stacks so tall he needed a machine to count it, the girls at school had merely pecked at my clothes. “You buy that outfit with your allowance?” asked Michelle, a muscular platinum blonde who commanded a pack of six girls with the deliberateness of a symphony conductor.
Then my dad dropped me off in the new Porsche. “Oh look at her!” Michelle’s sarcasm knifed me.
For the briefest moment I hoped she meant: Look at her! She’s one of us now.
“Ooh, now she thinks she’s too good for us,” said Other Michelle in a stage whisper across our history class. There were two of them, each the other’s crueler doppleganger, depending on their moods.
Too good for them? They’d spent years taunting me about the “cheap” stores where my shoddy, out-of-fashion clothes originated, my family’s obvious lack of money triggering their disgust. My father’s Porsche, then, such an obvious symbol of wealth, should have been my ticket in. Instead, it incensed them, as though I’d been caught trying to take a shortcut.
I hid at recess with my journal, penning stories of revenge, particularly a series named Precious Jade, where the bullied Jade is befriended by an older girl, “Brianna,” who helps her humiliate the mean girls by revealing their secret diaries. It hardly seems a coincidence that “Brianna” resembled Katrina, with her aerobics-toned body and gleaming white Reeboks.
One day, my dad and I drove the forested back roads to the woodsy nearby town of Lagunitas. He spent the hour before we left counting and stacking blocks of bills so crisp they looked like play money sets from the five-and-dime store. I had been privy to the pungent and slightly sticky green buds on a few occasions. He’d spread the twiggy arms out on a swath of plastic in his bedroom, then peeled and stripped and packaged them into blocks. I knew that he’d exchange the perfect stacks of cash for more of its green bulk. Familiar with its fetid scent, I understood that our beautiful new home was woven of this darkly-gotten wealth. Like the perfect square bindles of cocaine I’d found years before in my mother’s purse and stabbed with a toddler’s intuition of their evil, I loathed these stinking herbs.
My father’s “friend,” Bill, whom he’d come to “do business with,” had a constant sheathe of dark stubble, and a loud, bouncy dog that thudded against my body and licked me on the lips despite my hands threaded against my face.
“He’s friendly, he likes you!” Bill laughed.
Cornered, I didn’t laugh with him.
He smiled too big at me in that way I quickly learned meant adults didn’t want you to know about what they were doing. Think they have you fooled.
“Have a piece of gum.” He ruffled my hair and tossed the pack of bubble gum in my lap before he and my dad ambled away down the long corridor to do their shady business.
I took a piece, climbed up onto a high sofa where the dog couldn’t lick me, let the gum’s sugar-rich bloom fill my mouth. My father was strict about candy, but I still managed to steal the quarters from his change jar to purchase it — especially pixie sticks and sticky Charleston Chews that had to be pried from my teeth with toothpicks.
When the gum lost its flavor, I took two more pieces from the pack in my hand and added it to the rubbery, tasteless mass in my mouth.
Eventually a door cracked and their footsteps emerged, a comforting patter down the hall. I shoved the pack of gum into my pocket and followed my father out to the car.
A few days later, my dad approached me eyes flat. “Bill wanted me to tell you that next time, just take a piece of gum, not the whole pack.”
Bill’s words expanded my dislike of him into fully-fledged hatred. “I don’t ever want to go there again.”
My father pressed his lips into a hard line and looked at the ground, but said nothing. Katrina had just come over after work, still gleaming with the sweat of the Jazzercise class she taught in downtown San Rafael. I kept seeing my dad’s face; those flat eyes, the way he’d barely looked at me. I had stolen a pack of gum. One pack from a man who conducted a business in his hidden, wooded lair, a business that my mom had told me could put my dad in jail. I hid in my room and kicked the edge of my bed over and over, so hard the window rattled precariously in its old frame.
Katrina appeared in my bedroom door, her lips not curved into the usual wide smile. She sat on my bed, put one hand on my shoulder. I peeked behind her to see if my father was there too. He wasn’t.
“I know you don’t like what he does.”
I hugged my pillow. “He said he was going to stop.”
She nodded. “He is, he will. It takes some time to…make the transition.” Now she smiled and held out her arms, and I leaned into them.
Just as quickly as she’d become serious with me, she slipped back into her usual cheerful mode: “Hey, let’s go get ice cream at the 7-Eleven!” She leapt off the bed, the mischief back in her eyes and all was forgotten, for a while. She often took me out for dessert behind my father’s back, knowing he disapproved, a strategy that deepened my love for her.
That night she stayed over, and I heard the uncharacteristic sound of my father’s voice in a near shout from his bedroom after they thought I was asleep. Though I couldn’t make out their exact words, I had the sense that Katrina had said something to him on my behalf. Something that upset him.
The next day, when my father came home, he brought me a present, rare for him to do without an occasion. A purple suede-bound notebook with creamy blank pages, elegantly ragged at the edges. Most of my writing went into cheap lined notebooks from the drugstore, the pages soon crumpled and rough.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
He ruffled his blond hair. “In case you want to, you know, write about your feelings,” he said to the floor.
If this was some kind of apology, I didn’t want to accept it. “I already do that in my notebooks.”
He pursed his lips and made brief eye contact. “It won’t be like this forever.”
Like what? Did he mean I shouldn’t get used to this overflowing comfort, this big house and its rooms full of light? Or did he mean that he would, in fact, “transition” as Katrina had said, to a real job?
I shrugged and walked away, biting back tears.
Summer flew by in lazy days. Katrina would take me down to the big field at the end of our street and play “Smashball” with me — where we slammed a tiny ball back and forth between two paddles. In the summer, my parents let me stay for longer stretches of time at whichever house I wanted. My mom only slightly frowned when I asked for extra weeks at the new house with my dad. She worked forty hours at the Clinique make-up counter, and couldn’t be there to take me out for fun, anyway.
One night after school had started back up again, I dreamt of the sound of glass shattering, voices shouting at the end of a long corridor. I woke in bed at my father’s house, but my mother was there, smiling sweetly. It was only when her cool hand made solid contact with my cheek, her scent of sweet perfume and skin lotion wafting to my nose, that I realized I wasn’t dreaming her.
“You’re coming to my house,” she said softly.
Sleep still clinging to me, I stumbled up, and into a sweater. “What time is it?”
“Late. Or early, actually.”
I grasped Beasley, my stuffed lion, almost as big as me, and clutched his sweat-stained body to me. “What happened?”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll come back for your clothes tomorrow.”
She ushered me out of the house, through the kitchen side-door, weaving down the steps, around the house the long way, which seemed odd to me, but then, so was her sudden appearance.
As always, the details trickled out after the fact in my mother’s put-on, cheerful voice when I finally worked up the courage to ask what happened.
She busied herself organizing her albums, not looking at me the whole time. “Oh you know how high-strung Katrina could be.” She separated female musicians — Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush into one pile, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones into another.
“High-strung” sounded like an insult. Katrina was passionate, exciting to be around.
“Well, they had a little fight about something, and Katrina wound up kicking the plate glass door on accident, cut herself a little. Your dad had to drive her to the ER.”
“So why did you take me the back way?” I wanted to make her spin around and face me, but I couldn’t think of how.
“I just didn’t want you to see blood and think something terrible had happened.”
But hadn’t it? The whole thing felt wrong to me, but I didn’t know what else to ask.
When I returned to my father’s house as usual the next week, Katrina’s spandex aerobics outfits were no longer hanging in the bathroom; the big hallways were empty of her enthusiasm that caused my otherwise serious father to laugh and smile more often.
“Where’s Katrina?” I asked. Summer had moved in hot and oppressive, even in our big, cool house with all the windows thrown open.
My father wouldn’t look at me.
“We’re just taking a break,” he said but didn’t offer the explanations my mother did. This was his way, never to talk directly about difficult subjects, as though they were their very mention was enough to evoke the worst-case scenario.
I knew from experience with his other girlfriends that breaks had a funny way of becoming permanent. In my fear that we might lose this beautiful house in some sudden rush of danger due to my father’s livelihood, I had never even considered that I might lose Katrina, instead.
Summer was gone almost as quickly as she was. Midway through fifth grade that fall, I’d given up hope of seeing her again. My sadness was only given room in my stories, where I killed off Katrina’s likeness, “Brianna” with a rare illness, and my dad moved on to a pretty, green-eyed travel agent eleven years younger than him who didn’t hug or ask about my writing. She didn’t steal me away for desserts, either. We circled each other cautiously. And even though my father went on to marry this new woman two years later and she bore my two half-siblings not long afterwards, we never bonded with each other in the easy way that I had with Katrina. A thin layer of contempt existed between us as she tried to win me over by being cool—loaning me her Guess jeans, and talking about sex—but I resisted.
I did see Katrina once more, right at the end of fifth grade, nearly a year from that summer we’d spent playing games in the nearby park. Walking home from school, I ran into her emerging from the gym, hair a bit longer, bleached blonder, but as wild as ever. For a beat I caught a shadow in her eyes, a hesitation before she threw her arms wide and beckoned me in. “You look so tall!” she crowed. Indeed, I had surpassed her by a half inch or so.
She invited me over to her house to pick the now-ripe pears that grew on her property, and I went, worried that I was betraying my father somehow.
The pears hung, yellow and gravid from the spindly tree, intertwined with shiny red leaves. “That’s poison oak,” she said casually, “but don’t worry, you can’t get it if you’re not allergic.”
I wouldn’t know for another week that I was, in fact, highly allergic, until I went to Tahoe with my father’s new girlfriend, the travel agent, and the rash emerged up and down my throat and arms like proof of my betrayal. The sharp mountain air scraped it raw and I was forced to remain behind at the hotel, slathered in calamine. The rash felt like a punishment.
My father did finally extricate himself from dealing after my brother was born, around the time I turned 14. His last financial investment before quitting was to buy a house in Sonoma—an hour from where we lived. I didn’t want to leave my big, bright room, the house full of light, but I had no choice.
Then a freshman in high school, I lived with my mom during the week and spent the weekends an hour north, with nothing to do but make puzzles with my stepmom and write.
With the loss of my dad’s illicit business also went the generous income, and suddenly he was supporting a family of five on a fraction of what he’d once earned. In those dead broke, suffocating years, I preferred my mother’s house.
One day recently I came across a rare photograph of ten year-old me and Katrina cuddled up on the mauve couch in the big sunroom in Ross. It had been thirty years since I last saw her, but grief knocked me sideways that afternoon. I realized I’d never been allowed to grieve her loss, for that would have meant betraying the role I played in my father’s life: of silent co-conspirator. And yet here she is, storming onstage in my writing as suddenly as she did into my life when I was ten.
To this day I wonder if my father knew when he handed over that elegant journal when I was ten, that he was providing me a life-line, a raft of words that I would ride on into adulthood, the only constant that I have ever been able to count on.