I entered the Davis house with nothing but what was in my bag—the sum of all my possessions. I had neither toiletries nor underwear nor the simple sorts of things that make life bearable, survivable. I had but a few changes of clothing and a smatter of mementos that I am amazed I managed to hold on to. That which I considered essential: my 4th-grade journal, a ring my Grandfather made, and, of course, the asshole watch. The rest could and would be replaced in time, but these three things could not be, and so I had to hold on to them as closely as they held me to a permanence that my circumstances did not afford me.
Some things can only be cherished.
I wish I had known that was true of people, too, but that lesson came later, long after the carelessness of my teenage years.
Though meaningless to others, my few possessions kept me grounded and maybe even tethered to another possible life for me. It’s often said that things you own, own you, but when you have few possessions, you guard them jealously.
The journal was a reminder of a time of my life that was simpler still, and of my brother, the ring was a valuable gift that was hand made by my Grandpa and the watch, well, I suppose it was to remind me of the possibility of pain.
If every time you look to see what time it is, you are reminded of pain, it’s a great motivator never to suffer it again.
Pain is a useful teacher, especially if it is inflicted on you by those closest to you.
After all, the wounds which cut deepest are inflicted by those the closest.
Ellen took me to Wal-Mart to buy the necessities I needed. I no longer had any money, so she covered the tab. I spent the only $20 I had on food and cigarettes. While we were walking through the aisles, she told me about how her husband was the general manager of that particular location, so she had a family discount of some sort. She told me to grab whatever I needed, and so I did.
This shopping trip was surreal as it was sponsored. Unlike before when I visited Wal-Mart, there would be no five-finger discounts but a family discount. On my previous shopping trips, I was a shoplifter. Somehow I rationalized that it was alright to steal from big corporations, but not the “little guy.”
Even thieves, I said to myself, have a code.
I justified any criminal behavior I had had. I was trying to survive, I said to myself. The last thing we cling to is rationalization. And yet here I was with Ellen, this woman who owed me nothing yet gave me everything. Stealing from a corporation known for its “always low prices” had a human cost. Her life and her generosity were financed by the same corporation I had demeaned. The guilt hit me like a bullet, and it was a painful moral lesson, one I didn’t quite figure out right away but is indelibly tattooed on my heart:
Stealing is stealing. Period.
I didn’t know quite what to do with the feelings swirling in me, so I did what many of us do – I buried them. Ellen gave me far more than the bare necessities; she gave me a home, or at least, attempted to.
At first, living at Ellen’s was the dream come alive, made real. I had this bedroom with an accompanying bathroom. The family was super kind to me. The father, whose name I never learned, came home from work and watched television, and went to bed. We never interacted, and if we did, it was because he didn’t want me there. He tolerated that his wife brought home strays so long as they stayed in their place. My room was usually given to foreign exchange students. They saved the best room for a stranger. That’s what kind of person Ellen was. I like to think a country that has people like Ellen will thrive. Becky’s room was right across from mine, and we tried to find more things in common with each other, so I started reading her books. She was a very kind person like her mother. There was also an older brother, but I only met him a few times, and I don’t remember his name. He was also very kind to me. The father was the only person who wasn’t. It was clear that he disagreed with me living under his roof, and to be honest, probably with good reason. I wasn’t an ambitious exchange student. I was a cast-out reject who needed to somehow get to summer school, so she stood a chance of going to college.
He saw me coming from a distance, and he didn’t like the view close up.
I moved in at the start of summer, and the family already had plans of going on vacations before me coming along, so they went on these vacations and left me at home alone. So, I went from an absent mother to an absent foster family, but with food. I didn’t have a right to resent them leaving, but I did. I wanted to belong somewhere desperately. Somehow I got it in my head that nobody wanted me, and they were tolerating me out of some Christian guilt.
I felt like a freeloader, so I had to get a job. A real job. There were things that I wanted that I couldn’t dare ask Ellen for. Like a leather jacket. That was out of her price range and abilities, and I had already took too much. So, I applied at Greenpeace. They employed a bunch of insufferable Birkenstock wearing hippies and I figured if they could tolerate them, they could tolerate me. I applied and got the job, but during employee initiation, I ran into a snag. I didn’t have any documentation to prove who I was or how old I was. I decided I would pull someone aside and tell them my situation and just hope for the best. Well, it worked. My manager felt so bad for me that she broke their rule of hiring 17 and up (I was 16) and checked off all the boxes that she saw the appropriate ID. I guess they really needed butts in seats dialing phone numbers.
My job was hum drum and oh so boring. There weren’t any computers and everything was done by hand. Every day I came in and was handed a stack of cards with numbers on them to call. These were potential or past donors. When I called them I had to tell them a sob story that I rehearsed over and over again about almost extinct whales and the Rainbow Warriors. I didn’t know enough about these whales or their efforts to be credible and I think that came across as fake on the phone. It was really hard to secure pledges from people. We didn’t take payments over the phone, but instead sent out envelopes to collect the money via checks. You were given bonuses on what returned. So I guess technically, given they didn’t have QA, I could have lied, but I decided to always tell the truth in the spirit that I would somehow get better. I sadly did not. I sucked at saving the planet but I was doing my best to save myself. I pulled up a chair to listen to dreadlocked hippies, hoping to gain some sort of divine knowledge about oceanic life, and yet it really didn’t teach me what I needed to know—the art of persuasion.
When you first start a telemarketing job, if you have a heart or soul to speak of, you feel bad about pestering people over the phone. But eventually you grow numb to it and you just don’t care anymore. This skill – not caring anymore—has continued strangely to help me throughout life.
While working I also had to get to summer school. Before I got my first check I didn’t have any money so I had to figure out how to catch a cab to school every day. It was way too far to ride a bike and Josh had a full time job, so sadly he couldn't take me. I called my Grandfather and I didn’t ask for his help, but he must have sensed I needed it because he sent me a roll of silver dollars. I had no idea that the coins were worth more in silver than the amount I was spending on the cabs so I blew through that roll quickly. My cab driver was eager to take me to school every day. Gee, I wonder why? So, I started rummaging through Ellen’s things until I found a drawer with a bunch of coins and $20 bills in it. I figured I could replace them but I needed to get to school and Ellen wasn’t around to ask for help. Little did I know that I spent her gold certificates – that is, old money that was exchangeable in a bank for gold on demand – and silver dollars probably worth $17 each. My paychecks kicked in and I could stop doing this, but by that point, I went through the whole money drawer. I put a few $20 bills back, but never managed to replace the coins.
Josh would come over after work and we’d kind of play house. Or at least, I thought I was. He spent the night often and we even started taking showers together. Something that I really loved. He was incredibly kind and gentle with me. He valued me intellectually, which I found highly attractive. We’d listen to tapes together while in bed cuddling. It was pure happiness but happiness to me was horrifying. I’d never been happy like this before. I didn’t know how to do it. And I struggle with it still.
One afternoon while sitting in the living room, Ellen came in the front door, up the stairs and she was so excited to see me because I was often too busy for us to run into each other. She asked me to stand up from my chair so she could give me a hug. She was a ridiculously strong woman and she gave me a huge firm bear hug.
“I’m so glad to see you Cyan!” Next thing I knew I was on the floor. I had blacked out.
“Cyan, Cyan!! Are you on drugs!? What is going on?”
No, I wasn’t on drugs. But maybe I should have been. I was so tired of people accusing me of things that I wasn’t doing instead of the things I was doing.
I don’t know why I passed out. Maybe it’s that I was unaccustomed to being hugged or perhaps she hugged me so hard it triggered it. I’ll never know but the hug set off a wave of paranoia which led Ellen to finding the missing money. I tried to explain why I took it, which I think she understood, but she was understandably upset, as these things were her asshole watch, journal and ring. They were not replaceable. They had high sentimental value to her.
Despite this happening Ellen still managed to love me and forgive me. Yet another hard lesson. She didn’t have to love me, yet she did. She didn’t have to give me anything and could have turned me over to the state, yet she did not. This kindness has always stuck with me. To give without any expectation of return is a rare gift. It’s something I try to do now to this day. It is that gift which Ellen ultimately gave me and which I try to give on to others. I’ve tried several times to find Ellen, but I’ve failed. I hope I find Becky too. I know that money won’t and can’t fix my behavior but I’d like to right my wrongs anyhow.
Too little, too late, I know - but not for lack of trying.
Im still having a hard time wrapping my head around what you went through. Life can be so cruel but it made you stronger
I've been reflecting a lot on some of my friends' parents when I was young and the generosity some of them showed to me even though I could be quiet or sullen or was a bad influence on their kids sometimes. I can't get anywhere with my thoughts beyond, "I was a weird kid and they were nice to me anyway. Why? What did they see when I showed up?"