You would think living in a shelter would teach a little girl a thing or two about who she is and what she can and can’t have, but it hasn’t. Every time I walk through Walmart with Cassie to get a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk she finds some toy she wants and asks me to buy it.
“Not today,” is what I always tell her. The other day I said maybe Santa would bring it.
“We could say a prayer to him,” was what she said back.
I swallowed hard when she said that and regretted ever telling her about Santa.
There are presents for Cassie under the tree at the shelter. A couple of people dropped them off after the newspaper ran a story about us, telling people what it’s like to be homeless at Christmas. That girl from the paper was about the same age as me, but she said she didn’t have any kids. I don’t know whether she really believed what I told her or if she was just pretending.
Most girls like that don’t understand how you end up in a shelter like Faith’s House if you’re not a druggie, which I’m not, and neither was Jeremy. Their parents paid for them to go to college and that’s where they met the guys they married. For some reason guys with college degrees don’t beat their wives as much. Maybe it’s because they have such great jobs and work so much they’re never around to get mad about stuff like a lost remote control. Jeremy and I had a big blowout about that once.
There’s nobody with a degree at Faith’s House and most of us weren’t married to our exes. Jeremy and I didn’t have the money for a wedding and we were already living together when I got pregnant. We rented a townhouse. He worked as a bus driver and he also plowed snow in the winter.
I worked nights as a nurse’s aide, but after Cassie was born I started having to miss work all the time because the neighbors were calling me saying they could hear Cassie crying and Jeremy wasn’t getting her.
Jeremy had never been around a baby before Cassie was born. I told him when I got pregnant that things were going to change and he would have to help out at night. He said he would, but I guess he was too tired from working all day to get up and get her when she cried. I don’t even know if he heard her at all. He did drink a lot of beer when he got home from work. He never drank and drove, but all evening long he was nursing a Natural Light like Cassie was nursing her bottle.
The first time he ever hit me was my own fault. Cassie was six weeks old. I was so tired from being up all night with her and I had put her in her swing. I wanted to take a shower because I was so greasy and at that point I was still trying to breastfeed so I had crusty milk all over my shirt. I went to start the water and I heard her fussing. She must have woken Jeremy up. He came into the bathroom with his eyes all red and asked me if I was going to get the baby. I told him he should get her and then I kept running my mouth until he hit me.
From then on, things were different between Jeremy and me. We were enemies, but I couldn’t pay the bills without him. I couldn’t go live with my mom because she had some guy that she met on the internet living in her apartment and she didn’t want me moving home anyway. She said Jeremy was the best thing that ever happened to me because he could change our flat tires and even knew how to keep our cars running, which I had to admit was worth something considering how old the cars were.
I had to leave work early a couple of times when the neighbors kept calling about Cassie crying at night. My supervisor said I’d have to resign if I couldn’t work the full shift. I asked to work days instead, but they didn’t have any openings on day shift, so I had to quit.
After that, it was real hard paying for food, but at least I wasn’t so tired. I mouthed off less to Jeremy and we didn’t fight as much. One time I called my Aunt Linda because I was thinking about asking if Cassie and me could stay with her. She started talking about the unemployment rate and how I was so lucky Jeremy had a job. I don’t know why I couldn’t tell her he hit me. Maybe it was because I thought he wouldn’t do it if I could just stop talking back to him.
But sometimes I couldn’t stop. He’d come home and start drinking and he’d complain about the house being a mess. Cassie had started walking and she was always pulling things out of drawers.
Sometimes Jeremy would say dinner wasn’t good. He was sick of canned soup and sandwiches. I’d say we couldn’t afford steak and he’d take that as some kind of insult to his manhood and we’d be screaming at each other in front of Cassie until he hit me. Then I’d go cry in the bedroom and Cassie would come in and stare at me while I cried.
It went on for years like that. We’d be okay for a couple of weeks and then we’d fight. Sometimes he didn’t hit me, but I still hated him. I knew I would leave him when Cassie started school.
One day after we had a big fight, I got on the computer and Googled “shelter for abused women.”
I called a phone number for Faith’s House and a lady said I could stay there for two months, but they had a time limit for all “clients.” She told me after two months I’d have to find another place to go. Sometimes Social Services can help, but not always, was what she told me.
I took Cassie to the store with me and bought one of those prepaid cellphones. Then I put our stuff in my big duffle bag and left Jeremy a note saying I was moving out and not to try to find me. I guess he wasn’t too concerned because my mom said he never even called to ask about me and Cassie after we left.
I got a job working 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a home health aide, which worked out great with Cassie’s school schedule. I was approved for food stamps and got my card after a month. My job paid enough to keep insurance on my old Honda and I had gas money to get to work, but not much left over at the end of the week. I kept searching through the classified ads, but the cheapest apartment I could find was six hundred dollars a month. I knew I couldn’t pay that plus water and electric.
We were supposed to be out of Faith’s House by Dec. 20. I asked the house director, Christine, if we could stay just a little bit longer because it was hard to move so close to the holidays. She said no. The rules were the rules and we’d been there more than sixty days already. She said she had some grant money she could use to buy me two weeks in a motel or help me with a deposit on an apartment if I found one I could afford.
The next day was Sunday, Dec. 15, and I decided Cassie and me would go to church. Instead of saying prayers to Santa, we’d say them to God, I decided, because I figured it couldn’t hurt.
I didn’t really have any church clothes for Cassie so I told her she could wear her favorite shirt with the sequined cat on it. For some reason she didn’t want to wear the cat shirt so we argued about that for a while. I told her to pick out whatever she wanted and she grabbed a sleeveless top out of my duffel bag, which I had tossed in a corner. I started to say she couldn’t wear a sleeveless shirt in December, but then I found a sweater that she agreed to wear ONLY if she did not have to button it.
Then we fought about her shoes. She only had two pairs – her sandals from summer and her Dora sneakers. Guess which pair she chose. When we walked into church and sat down in one of the pews, me in my red sweater from Goodwill and her in her sandals and dirty tights, I felt like I might collapse.
The choir was singing “Joyful, all ye nations, rise. Join the triumph of the skies,” and I started crying. I felt so stupid and tried to hold it in. I didn’t want anybody to see me, but it made me so sad, because wouldn’t it be so wonderful if it were true? If there was always someone to love you and look out for you even if you made the wrong choices? If all the suffering was worth it in the end because you’d go to a safe place where nothing bad ever happened again?
After church we had to go to the store to get the bread and milk. We all shared a kitchen at Faith’s House. The other women and their kids were always drinking our milk and eating our bread. I couldn’t blame them. We were all hungry and tired of generic peanut butter. I kept Cassie’s animal crackers hidden in my duffel bag.
In the checkout line, Cassie grabbed a miniature Cinderella doll with a removable plastic dress. It was $3.99 and I had the cash to cover it, so I didn’t say anything when she put it on the counter. I hated the look the girl at the checkout gave me when I used my EBT card to pay for the milk and bread. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen.
After I paid, Cassie started asking for the doll. I pushed her out of the way, over to the benches where I could put my change back in my purse and get the doll out.
I could hear the checkout girl talking about me.
“Funny how that works,” she said. “Our money pays for their food and her money goes to cheap toys made in China.”
I looked up to see who she was talking to and it was the girl from the newspaper who interviewed me about being homeless. I gave her a dirty look, took Cassie’s hand and started walking toward the door.
“Erin,” I heard her call after me. I was surprised she even remembered my name.
I stopped and turned around.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said.
“She ought to keep her thoughts to herself,” I yelled back. I didn’t want to cry twice on the same day.
The reporter asked me if I ever found an apartment and I told her that I hadn’t because everything was too expensive. Then she asked if I had been checking the classified ads and I told her that I had been, every day, because I’m not stupid.
There was one ad that ran yesterday for a live-in caretaker, free room and board, she told me. I hadn’t seen that one. We walked out to her car so she could give me her copy of yesterday’s paper. I told her she ought to do a story about how Faith’s House kicks you out four days before Christmas even if you have no place to go. She said she wasn’t that kind of reporter, that it was a small town and she had to try really hard not to make people mad, and half the time they got mad anyway.
I guess that’s why girls like that find husbands who don’t beat them. They know how to keep the peace.
She got the paper out of her car and showed me the caretaker ad. I took it and said thanks. I felt like saying thanks for nothing, but I didn’t.
That afternoon I called the number in the ad. No one answered, but later a man called me back and asked if I could come for an interview at 10 a.m. on Monday. He gave me directions to the house where I’d be working. It was off Route 624.
The house was back a muddy dirt road, all covered in potholes and patches of snow. I wondered why anybody would want to live in such a Godforsaken place in the wintertime, but I guess if you lived there in the summer, you’d have to stay there in the winter, too, if you were disabled.
I turned at the sign that said “Millgate” and parked in front of a big stone house. The man who answered the door led me into a room with lots of bookshelves and nice old furniture. The wallpaper had turned a yellowish shade and was started to peel in a few spots.
Then a guy in a blue sweater came in and introduced himself as Dan. He said he lived in Washington and wanted to find someone to live in the stone house with his mother, who didn’t get around well, but could walk to the bathroom with help. The person would have to her help her bathe, do the laundry, make her meals, fill her prescriptions and do some housework when necessary, even though there was a housekeeper who came once a week to do the chores that required a mop and bucket.
“Tell me a little bit about yourself,” Dan said. I knew better than to tell him I was living in a shelter. If he thought there was a man after me, he’d never let me move in.
He liked the fact that I was a nurse’s aide and I grew up nearby. I told him I was living with my mom and wanted to move out of her apartment to be more independent.
I was pretty sure our conversation would be over when I told him about Cassie, and I didn’t know how to bring it up, so when he asked me, “Why do you want this job?” I told him the truth.
“I have a daughter.”
“Oh,” he said. “How old?”
“She’s six. She’d be coming with me.”
“Well, I was thinking it would just be one person, but if you don’t mind sharing a bedroom, there’s plenty of space in the tenant house for two people,” he said. “When can you start?”
We met Mrs. Briggs the next day. She was in her recliner, in front of the TV. Dan said she spent most of the day either watching TV or reading, and she slept a lot.
She looked at me and then at Cassie.
“You have red hair,” she said to Cassie. “Redheads are special. I used to have red hair, too.”
Then she asked Cassie and me if we would have a cup of tea with her. I made my way into the kitchen and opened up all the cabinets, until I found the tea bags.