Arely Anaya: The Safe Place
Home is me in my bed alone. It wasn’t always like that, but the older I got, the more uncomfortable I became with anyone sleeping with me. I get anxious because it’s like they’re invading. This is hard on guys I screw since I don’t ever offer up my place. I don’t let family members sleep in my bed either, no matter how rude they think it is for me to offer them the couch.
The only time I loved sharing my bed was when my deaf grandmother on my dad’s side moved in with us for a few years. She was a recovering alcoholic with short brown hair who smelled like thick, earthy perfume. I was her only granddaughter. When we slept, she’d let me hang my short leg over her hip. She’d give me all the pillows because she’d rather rest her head on a folded towel. When I’d wake up thirsty, she’d instinctively sit up, reach for the jug of water on her bedside table, and unscrew the cap before handing it to me. I didn’t have to sign or touch her to communicate. If I did, it was to say goodnight and tell her I loved her.
I loved her for being nice to me, but also because my dad wouldn’t hit my mom around her. The few years she lived with us were the calmest my parents' relationship would ever be. My grandmother’s presence was one of the only chances for our home to feel like a home. But my mom never wanted her there.
My mom thought my dad made my grandmother keep an eye on us while he was at work because my mom cheated a lot, especially with one of the mechanics from the auto place a few streets over. So, my mom made her miserable, picking fights with her over the smallest things, like how differently they did the cooking and cleaning, to make her feel like she was taking up space.
My grandmother eventually moved back to Mexico when I was eight. Her earthy perfume continued to waft from her side of our shared bed. I’d form her curvy body with pillows, and imagined hanging my leg on her. I missed her. My grandmother leaving was when I started feeling the most at home but only when I was in bed by myself. Sharing with anyone else felt like a sweaty nightmare. Afterward, I guess everything in terms of home felt that way.
My dad hadn’t done anything about my mom cheating until my grandmother left. One of those first nights he locked the door to their bedroom. Smashing furniture, shattering glass, and my mom screaming left me frozen in the hallway. I should’ve called for help. I should’ve stopped him. She was still my mom. But despite how scared I was, I remember hoping my mom regretted pushing my grandmother away. It was the most hateful I’d ever felt, and to this day it still scares me.
A few months after, and for the first time ever, my mom and I managed to flee without my dad catching us. We escaped to an emergency shelter for families fleeing domestic abuse. We had to share a bed. A childless Indian woman slept on the top bunk. I wanted to sleep on the top, but the place was too crowded for me to have my own bed.
My mom knew I hated sleeping with her. She’d caught me sneaking out of the room enough times that she forced me to sleep up against the wall. But that didn’t matter. She was a heavy sleeper. Most of the room snored, but my mom’s snores were like growls. She sounded like a sleepy demon, and I wanted out.
Her curly hair tangled over the pillow. If I stared at it long enough, it would start to look like clumped balls of dead spiders. I’d crawl away to the end of the bed to her small feet. Her toenails would scratch my arm as I slid down to the floor.
Our bunk bed was the furthest from the door. The scrapes on my arm would burn the more I crawled across the carpet. A digital alarm clock sat on the nightstand by the door. The red numbers were my guides.
Anytime my mom would toss and turn under the blankets, I’d stop dead in my path. I’d close my eyes and pretend to be a chunk of the dark. I waited to hear if she’d wake to throw something at me or come pull me up by my hair. If not, I’d keep slithering. Reaching the door, I would move onto my knees, glide my hand up to the knob, and escape.
I’d walk down the shadowy hall to check the payphone. Favian, the boy from room six, always hid a stick of gum in the change dispenser for me. He knew I couldn’t have gum. He thought my mom didn’t want me swallowing it and needing emergency surgery. But really, she thought chewing too much gum would make me lose my virginity. I honestly don’t know the science behind why she thought that, but I never questioned it as a kid. Mom knew best, I guess.
Favian became my buddy within a few days after I got to the shelter. We had been in a group counseling session with all the other kids. He asked me to feel his full head of hair before he’d have it cut the next day. Then we talked about our moms: both hard asses with snappy voices and obsessed with the Argentine-born singer Amanda Miguel.
The sofa next to the payphone was one of my favorite spots. Some couches feel like you’re getting lost in the rolls of a fat man, but that sofa had solid cushions, fluffy enough to freely roll around in without the fear of disappearing. I’d lie down on my back, close my eyes, and chew my gum. Sometimes, the gum would drop to the back of my throat and I’d choke. Other times, I’d fall asleep with it in my mouth and wake up to feel it in the same spot between the inside of my cheek and teeth. I wanted to make that sofa feel like home but it never worked out.
My dad would call me and I’d tell him to come find me. The ringing would shoot me awake. I’d hop off the sofa and yank the phone down by its chord. He’d call sometime after midnight because he knew my mom didn’t want him talking to me. She hated him for hitting her. I could hate him, too, because him hitting her made her hit me. But I didn’t hate anyone. I hated never being able to break them apart, like when my dad would drag her by her hair through the living room, or when he’d reach over to the back seat of the car to swing at her while he kept driving. We’d swerve, and she’d wrap her arms around me in case we crashed, instead of protecting herself from my dad.
As soon as I got to the shelter, I had weekly solo meetings with some type of counselor named Ms. Kim. The meetings were simple. I’d show up after breakfast, she’d ask me how I was doing, and we’d do an art activity while we talked. I didn’t understand at the time that the point of the meetings were to talk through my dad’s domestic abuse. I thought it was a way to keep the kids from getting bored.
On our first meeting, we were cutting out snowflakes as it was getting closer to Christmas. We sat across from each other at a table I knew was too low for her.
Ms. Kim asked, “Did she ever defend herself?”
“What was it like?”
The small pieces of paper fell onto the table as I kept cutting. “There was a lot of hair paint.”
Later on, I noticed Ms. Kim had a habit of untucking and retucking a strand of her red hair from behind her ear. Being new at what she was doing for us kids, I think she was always nervous.
She leaned in. “Hair paint?” Her lips were a hard line, and her brown eyes usually squinted at me like she wanted to read my mind. It always made me nervous.
“My mom had her hair tied up in a bun, a bunch of black in it, on her ears and neck. She was washing dishes in her bra and underwear. I ate cereal. I was going to school.”
“And your dad?”
“Getting home from work. He got mad that she was coloring her hair. He always said she colored it a lot for her other boyfriends.”
“That’s when they started fighting?”
I nodded. “My dad kept calling her a ho. So, my mom told him to fuck off, and he smacked her.” Ms. Kim hadn’t flinched when I swore. I realized I had said it when I grabbed another sheet of paper and folded it. It felt too late to say sorry.
“What happened after that?”
I grabbed the scissors, started cutting again, and allowed the white pieces of paper to keep sprinkling onto the table.
“My mom grabbed a knife and chased him around the house.”
She uncomfortably scrunched her brows for a second before forcing them to relax. “Were you scared?”
“A little. I was gonna get to school late.”
“What did you do?”
“I followed my mom to the front of the house. She locked my dad out. He tried to calm her down so he could come back in. But she’d stab the knife at the glass, and say bad words, like BAD words. My dad didn’t look that scared anymore. He was laughing.” I grinned down at my snowflake, remembering his playful smile covered by his mustache.
I think he laughed because he didn’t want to take her too seriously and let her win. My mom’s eyes had been knives of their own, and her breasts and curvy sides shook every time she stabbed at the glass, harder each time, wishing she could cut the smile off his face. For once, my mom hadn’t been the one running, and I was too young to realize how important that was.
“She was really upset,” Ms. Kim noted.
I nodded. “At me, too, because I was bothering her. I kept telling her I was going to be late to school, but she wouldn’t listen. When she did, she yelled at me to go finish my cereal.”
“How did you feel when she yelled at you?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Sad? She was still mad I told my dad about the mechanic.”
“One of my mom’s friends who’s a boy.”
My mom had given me that explanation every time I asked who a guy was, and it made complete sense to me.
Ms. Kim swept all the tiny pieces of white paper into a pile with her fingers. “What happened next?”
I shrugged. “I finished my cereal.” I rarely hesitated to talk about my parents fighting. I liked having Ms. Kim ask me questions, because my grandmother was one of the only people that ever asked me things consistently. It made me think for a little while that the shelter wouldn’t be all that bad. I unfolded my second snowflake and placed it next to the first one.
A few days later, all the kids were scattered outside of Ms. Kim’s group room after breakfast. Some were racing back and forth, and others were lying down on the carpet as obstacles, complaining that we’d been waiting for hours, although it’d only been a few minutes. Our group session was going to start soon. I had been sitting on the floor up against the wall next to Favian. I couldn’t help thinking I should’ve gone back to my room because I had caught ringworm after playing with the older boy who told me he could only pee upward. He told me about that randomly, so I don’t know if that was even true. Only I hadn’t known he had given me ringworm. I thought it was some flesh-eating disease that was going to take me out within a few days.
Favian kept nudging my shoulder. “Are you going to tell me?”
“Come on. You can’t say something’s wrong, and not say what’s wrong.”
I looked around at the other kids to make sure no one was listening. I kept pulling my turtleneck up against my chin, paranoid it’d slide down and expose my scaly red skin. My mom told me not to tell anyone I was sick, but I told Favian, “I think I’m dying.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “Cancer?”
“I don’t know what it is.”
He glanced down at my turtleneck, and then back up at me. I nodded.
He scratched his shaved head and glanced around. Then he asked, “Can I see?”
I shook my head. “You’ll run away.”
“I won’t.” He reached for my neck.
I smacked his hand away with the long sleeve of my sweater. “No! You’re going to get it, too. You’ll die and your mom will hate me and tell my mom.”
I also didn’t want him to die because I obviously had a huge crush on him.
“I don’t know what it’s called. Something worms, like wings worms. I can’t remember.”
“What the fudge is that?”
I shrugged. “But it sucks, and you can get it if you touch me. So, don’t. And please don’t tell anybody.”
“Should I call 9-1-1?” He reached into the pocket of his sweatpants for quarters to use the payphone.
“No, save it for gum.”
A little girl came stumbling toward me. She was maybe two or three, and she sat on my lap. Favian and I both gasped, as if she was stumbling into her death. She really liked me, a curly haired black girl with big cheeks that were too precious to squeeze. I kept my hands hidden in my sleeves.
“Hey, cutie. Come sit here,” Favian patted the floor in front of him to save her from me, but she wouldn’t listen.
Her older brother with an afro and scar on his chin came up to us and snatched her away from me. He glared at my turtleneck. I looked down at the floor, feeling overwhelmingly guilty, because he knew that I knew I was contagious, and yet I was hanging around other kids.
“Don’t touch her,” he snapped, before walking away.
Ms. Kim came out of her room, and the kids screamed and ran to line up. The scarred boy went up to her and mouthed off. He pointed at me. My stomach stirred, and I could feel my blood rushing to my cheeks. Ms. Kim let all the kids go in, but asked me to stay. Favian lingered, his hands on his hips, ready to say something if needed.
“Favian, everything is fine. Frida and I are going to talk for only a minute. Go ahead.”
He hesitated before going in. The hall was deserted, shadowy with the hanging lights casting shadows, except for the scarred boy standing by the entrance to the play room. Ms. Kim hadn’t noticed. She put her hands on her knees to match my height. I looked down at the dark carpet.
“I’m sorry that you’ve been sick.”
I’m not sure why I wanted to cry, but the knot in my throat grew the longer she stared at me.
“Is it okay if I take a look?”
I nearly swung my sleeve at her, but knew to shrug instead. She pulled down the turtleneck and exposed the patchy red rings.
I bit my lip at the fact that I knew what was coming.
“You can’t join the group session today.”
I sighed and blinked repeatedly to keep the tears back. “But I like group” my voice cracked.
“I know you do, honey.”
I looked up at her then. Her tied back hair made her white face look gentler, a soft blush in her cheeks and big eyes.
“You’ll just have to hang out with your mom for a while until you get better.”
“I don’t like hanging with my mom.”
“It’s only for a little while, okay?”
I wiped away the tears from my oily, round face.
“Oh, angel,” she reached to touch my face, but stopped herself.
I pulled my turtleneck up over my chin. I slogged around her and down the hall to look for my mom. I walked past the scarred boy.
He told me, “Angels don’t have nasty skin.”
Even without ringworm, I still don’t think I have the greatest skin because of eczema: red, itchy, inflamed skin. That was the first time I ever felt disgusting, and that feeling hasn’t fully worn off since then.
A few weeks later, I started feeling feverish, fatigued, and had muscle aches. If I stood for too long, my sight would blotch black. I’d get sweaty and faint. I’d collapse onto the closest thing to sit on, sometimes just the floor, put my head between my knees, and breathe like Ms. Kim had shown me. My mom thought I had the basic flu. She gave me pills too big for me to swallow. I’d choke and cough them up into my hands in a slobbery mess.
She’d yell at me in the bathroom where no one could hear us, “How you expect to get better?”
I felt the most alienated in the dining hall. I rested my head on the table, confident my forehead would leave behind sweaty smears, but I didn’t care. The kids chowed down on their grilled cheese sandwiches with their mouths open. My mom was assembling mine like all the other mothers had done for their kids. If I wouldn’t eat, she’d pinch my arm when no one was looking, call me mocosa, and blame me for being sick. But I couldn’t eat. My mouth was filled with blisters and it hurt to chew.
I was an eight year old that caught herpes. I didn’t realize it until years later. I get flare ups from time to time, and the symptoms are all too familiar to the first time at the shelter. I had a habit of sticking my fingers in my mouth. I can’t remember who I might’ve touched, or if one of my cuts or rashes made me vulnerable when playing with the other kids or getting coddled by one of the other moms. But I’m pretty sure the boy with the upside-down penis had something to do with it.
My mom came over with a grilled cheese sandwich made from the butts of the loaf of bread on a paper plate. If I didn’t feel so crappy, I might’ve appreciated her kindness a little more.
She pulled her chair closer to me, “Tuviste suerte.”
It was the last sandwich, but I still don’t think there’s anything lucky about butt slices. I eyed my sandwich disappointedly, while the other kids stretched the melted cheese high above the table before lowering it down into their mouths, munching carelessly.
K.K., the boy with pierced ears and bony fingers, pointed at my plate saying, “Ew, you eating ass.”
He turned to the other kids, and they laughed. My mom gave them a soft grin with her colorless lips from giving up makeup. She didn’t understand English, and assumed K.K. was making polite small talk. My cheeks would have flushed, but I was already warm.
I lowered my head, pulled off a piece of sandwich, and put it into my mouth. I wanted to feel hungry. I wanted my mouth to water at the comfy smell of molten cheese and buttered bread. Instead, I felt like a fat baby was sitting on my head, and my skin was oily from the Vicks my mom had rubbed all over my chest and nose, because she was so convinced that I had the flu, and didn’t think I needed any doctor visits.
I tried to chew, but the toasted bread rasped against the blisters, sending stabs throughout the roof of my mouth and up my nose. I flinched and stopped chewing. I let the bread sit on my tongue, and waited for my saliva to melt it away.
I stood in front of the sink in the community bathroom with a cup of salt water in a Styrofoam cup. My mom said it’d help with the blisters, but it didn’t stop me from staring into the cup like it was something toxic. I was worried it’d melt my gums because maybe my mom had grown tired of having a sick kid. After leaving my dad, I was convinced maybe she thought she could get rid of me, too.
My mom came into the bathroom, and I pretended to drink.
“Se siente mejor?”
I nodded and kept the cup against my face. In the mirror, I watched my mom walk behind me to the toilet. She was wearing my dad’s purple work shirt with El Taconazo printed on the back. She pulled down her pajama pants and sat. I put the cup down on the counter and stared at the mirror some more. I could see my brown forehead and short, wavy, black hair. She had cut it earlier because I got lice. So, I get why Favian had gotten his head shaved. My dad would’ve called my hair cute, but all I saw was Dora the Explorer. I still see Dora the Explorer when I look at pictures.
My mom farted and I switched the sink on to let the water flow as loudly as it could. But it wasn’t enough. The farting echoed in the toilet bowl, and I could smell hard-boiled eggs. I glanced at her, not sure how to stand there without looking awkward. Maybe now I’d ask my mom what the heck she ate, but back then, I was scared shitless witnessing her poop.
She glared and tossed her long, tangled, brown her behind her shoulder. She shouted, “Que me miras?”
I turned back to the mirror. She wiped her butt, pulled up her pants, and flushed. I brought the cup back to my lips but didn’t drink. My mom came over to the sink. I watched her look down at me through the mirror. Her thin eyebrows nearly disappeared into her wrinkles, and I could see the fresh marks on her chin from picking at her skin with her long nails when she got nervous. I felt my stomach swell into my chest, making it hard to breathe. My hands get sweaty now just remembering.
She snatched the cup from my hand and looked in it. It was obvious I hadn’t been drinking any. I stared at the drain, feeling stupid for not dumping some out. She rammed the cup into my face. It crumpled and tore, spilling the water down my neck and chest. The edges scratched my cheeks. But what had hurt most was her palm bashing my nose. I moved my hands to hold my face. I used to think that stopped the pain from rushing to the rest of my body.
I locked my eyes on the drain, and she smacked the back of my head, swearing it was the last time she’d try to help. She stepped around my puddled-self, and left the bathroom. Each time she hit me, it convinced me she hated me. I didn’t get used to it until I was maybe in late middle school. I didn’t learn the smack, pinches, and name-calling didn’t mean she didn’t love me until I was maybe in high school. Well, I kind of learned. I still second guess it.
I gently licked the crown of my mouth. I focused on the soft and swollen bumpy texture to keep from crying, I teared up anyway. I stuck my thumb in and up against the roof. The blisters didn’t burst and made me cry out against the mirror.
I pulled my thumb out and caught my breath. Then I stuck my thumb back in and tried again, using my nail instead. I didn’t feel any popping. It only burned. I pulled out my thumb again, smeared red from my mouth bleeding. I spit into the sink, blood and mucus.
After the night my mom and I left my dad for good, I spent years wishing I had known so I could’ve warned him. She shook me awake and told me to get my ass up. I grabbed the book bag she had packed with all my socks and underwear, but not enough shirts. Before leaving I peeked into my parents’ room. The TV was still on, flashing light along the walls and bouncing shadows. My dad was deep asleep on the bed, still wearing his work boots. I couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d feel waking up to an empty house.
My mom pinched my arm and pulled me away from the room. We hurried out onto the frosty front lawn where my old kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Cabrejo, was waiting for us in her red, rusty van. She kept glancing at our windows. Jumping into the van, I could easily see her thick, scrunched eyebrows in the dark. She was in her pajamas, too.
She asked my mom, “How are you feeling?”
My mom slowly pulled the door shut. “I think I’ll feel better once we’re off this street.”
Mrs. Cabrejo looked back at me. “Sleep, Fridita. It’ll be a little while until we get there.” She adjusted the heat. “You let me know if you two feel too warm.”
I was cold, but my hands were sweaty. My mom hadn’t explained to me we’d be leaving. I’ve added it to the list of everything else she didn’t bother to tell me because she thought it wasn’t important, or because she thought I wouldn’t understand.
“It’s called The Safe Place.” Mrs. Cabrejo was shaking and wouldn’t stop adjusting the heat. “It’s a shelter for families like yours. You’re going to love it. You’ll sleep a lot better.”
It confused me how sure she sounded about me sleeping better elsewhere. The only other time I slept as well as I did when my grandmother and I shared a bed was during long car rides. My parents and I would stroll around the mall, in and out of stores, without ever buying anything. Then my dad would buy us dollar ice cream cones. The drive back home he’d play his oldies mix, hold my mom’s hand, and I’d fall asleep in the back seat feeling the safest I’d ever felt in my life. The drive to the shelter felt the exact opposite.