Setting: April-May 1989-Hammond, Indiana
I wrote the essay Mrs. Foster asked for. At least, I got the chance to voice my dreams. That's all it had been until now, a dream. Now it was a dream that might actually come true. Mark and I had been dating for almost two years. We talked about marriage for over a year. People asked if I was scared, making a commitment to a single guy for the rest of my life. I wasn't. I'd seen my other friends, like Annabelle and Vicki, make it work. Their teen marriages weren't perfect. But it was love that was important, right?
I went to bed that night, in my new room, in my new house, never feeling more alone. I longed for the bonds the girls of the house already had. I wondered to myself, will they ever accept me?
The next day, plans were already at work for my new life. One of the girls approached my room. She had brown hair, brown eyes, glasses, and a serious expression on her face. It was my second day at Cambridge, and I hadn't seen her crack a smile yet. She was the only girl in the house who had her own room with no roommates at all. Her bedroom was smaller than the others, but it was all hers.
She reminded me of how I was until now, an old woman living in a young body who couldn't relate to others my own age, but I was always trusted by adults to be responsible. I felt a kinship with her. I was quick to welcome her into my room when she appeared in the doorway.
"Hi, I'm Rachel," she said, and she shook my hand.
Mrs. Foster had assigned Rachel as my mentor to help me adjust to being here. She attended Hammond Beauty Academy and was graduating in August. She explained that that was when she would turn eighteen and move in with her boyfriend. She glowed as she described the plans for her life.
I felt she and I would have a lot in common. Mrs. Foster relaxed the rules for me to go to Hammond Beauty Academy for their open house that day. I started to feel like fate had brought me to Cambridge. After that, my adventures outside were limited to the back porch. That didn't stop the girls from coaxing me out onto the driveway. I'd been avoiding the driveway since that run-in with Alex Sanders.
A few days later, all the girls were outside soaking up the sunshine. Several girls were dancing in the driveway while other girls were sitting on a blanket in the backyard listening to the radio when "Walk This Way" by Aerosmith and Run-DMC came on. That was a song all the girls liked. Usually, I had learned, the girls fought over the radio. Music styles clashed between hip/hop and rock, but with this song, everyone was dancing. I watched from the back porch. Callie, one of the housemothers, came outside to watch with me. Callie was in her late thirties, probably close to six feet with blonde hair and blue eyes. She was always smiling and quick to lend an ear. I'd never known anyone like her.
"Hey, why don't you get out there with the others?" Callie asked and nodded to where the other girls were.
"I can't. It's my first week. This is as far as I get. I don't want to get in trouble." I was lucky enough that I didn't get caught when Emily pulled me off the porch the last time.
"And I'm in charge. Just get out there. Show them what you're made of. You might even have fun. You're quieter than most of the girls around here, even for a new girl."
"Okay, I'll go. Thanks, Callie."
"No standing around, either. You've got to promise me you'll dance," Callie said. She pulled me in for a fierce bear hug, and then gave a gentle shove to get me on my way.
"I promise. I promise." I pretended like she nearly squeezed me to death, and I wanted her to let go. I really hadn't been hugged like that in a long time. It was at least a couple of years, probably before my grandma died. Before I headed over in earnest, I stood there and looked at her for a minute. She was so unbelievably motherly and kind. The other girls in the house called her Mom. She didn't have any children of her own and that was a shame because she'd make a really good mom. She counted each and every Cambridge girl as her kid.
After a minute, she thought I was stalling and gave me a serious glare to get going! I was dancing with the others when my luck ran out. Alex stepped out from his back door to watch. The moment I'd been dreading finally arrived. There he was in the driveway. I had no idea why I felt so self-conscious around him. I detested him so far. My emotions were all over the map about the guy.
He was a world-class jerk. I could hardly fathom what the other girls saw in him. He had looks, but he seriously lacked in personality. The other girls thought he was sweet and charming. If he was, I couldn't see it because he started cross-examining me the moment we met.
"Hey, Katie, isn't it?" he probed. He knew perfectly well what my name was. I'd told him before. My arrival was big news around the house because I was the new girl. All the girls were friends with him, and gossip flowed around the house about the new girl. How could he not know what my name was?
"Yeah, I forgot your name though," I responded coyly, priding myself on a clever comeback.
"It's Alex. So, do you like dancing?"
"Yeah, I guess. I'm not good at dancing to hip/hop. It's my first time. My favorite thing to do is roller-skate."
Melanie overheard us. "Hey, that's great! Katie gets off restriction in a few days. Why don't you come skating with us, Alex?"
"Is that okay with you?" he asked, eyeing me for a reaction.
I wouldn't give him the satisfaction. "Whatever. It's a free country."
Melanie continued, "Katie has a birthday coming up."
"How old will you be?" I could still feel his eyes on me as he asked the question.
"Yeah, that's why I'm here. I'm waiting to turn eighteen, like everyone else around this place."
"Right. Listen, I'm sorry about the other day. You look like this girl I used to know named Kathy Wolf, but I know you're not her because she'll be turning twenty in September."
I stood there, stunned. He knew me all right. I'd forgotten how many times I'd told guys that lie. When I was in junior high, I liked high school boys, and by the time I was in high school, I'd focused on college guys. Around the time my grandma got sick, no one was paying attention to what I did anymore. I had a social life with friends, doing whatever I wanted. That included self-destructive behavior, like drinking. I went wild, anything to forget my pain. Mark took me away from all that. He saved me.
I found myself asking Alex questions. I couldn't stop the words that rushed from my mouth. My curiosity got the better of me. "So, now you know about me. There's really nothing else to know. I'm sure the gossip trail spilled all the juicy details by now. What about you?" I was proud of my clever way to get the facts I needed to figure out how he knew me.
He smiled, pleased I showed enough interest to ask. "I moved here from Merrillville, graduated from Merrillville High in '85. I'm a junior at Purdue University Calumet. I was at IU Bloomington, but I had too much fun during my sophomore year and flunked out. My parents moved here with my little sister so I decided to move in with them. It keeps me on track for school."
"You must love living next door to a bunch of adoring girls."
"A couple of years ago, maybe. But I've changed since then, grown up more. Time'll do that."
I shrugged. "I guess so."
"Are you the same person you were two years ago?"
"No." I scoffed at him. He really had no idea how much I changed. Kat, the party girl, was long gone.
"How's school? I bet Hammond High is sure different from where you're from."
"School is not so good. I missed too many days this semester. The principal said there was no reason for me to enroll now. It was a waste of time for me to attend classes when there's no way for me to be eligible to receive credit for them."
"She's so lucky. We have to go to school, and she doesn't."
I rolled my eyes at Melanie. "Right, I'm so lucky that I have to go to summer school to make up the credit. None of the rest of the girls has to go to summer school, yet I do."
"But there's a month left in the school year. You get to stay home for an entire month of school days," Melanie complained.
"It's no big deal. Hammond High School only requires thirty-eight credits to graduate. I've already got thirty-three credits. I'm making up English VI and American History II in summer school. That's two credits there. I only need three more. The punishment for my recent screw-up is that I'm enrolled for an entire year in the fall, and I only need three credits to graduate. I'm lucky. Mrs. Foster talked to the school. She really stuck up for me. She told them that it was a waste of my time to be enrolled in fourteen classes for the entire school year when I only needed to meet four more requirements. I only need to take English VII, English VIII, Government, and Economics, so I'm taking three classes in the mornings, starting in the fall. I get an early work release for the rest of the school day, so I can work. And I'm not staying home, doing nothing. I'm starting beauty school."
Alex laughed and pointed to the bad bleach job Vicki and I had done on my hair. Just when I'd started to think he was a decent guy, he had the nerve to make fun of me. I'd spent most of my childhood being teased and laughed at by others. I didn't take it lightly.
"Can you believe my sister got her interested in beauty school?" Melanie commented to Alex. Alex was quiet then, studying the look on my face.
"Going to beauty school was something I've wanted to do for awhile. Nobody had to get me interested. Who's your sister anyway?"
"Rachel is my sister. Didn't she tell you?"
My mouth dropped. No one told me. With all of the gossip in the house, no one was sharing any information with me. I didn't fit in yet. My heart tore a little at the thought, going back to that familiar feeling of being left out. My birthday was coming up, and I wondered what that would be like.
Would I have a birthday cake? Even if I did, would there be anyone to celebrate with me? It couldn't be that much different from birthdays with Cassandra. Last year, I spent my birthday with a couple of friends in my empty house. I made brownies. I didn't even get a birthday cake, and I spent most of the time trying to get them to stop raiding Cassandra's refrigerator for alcohol. The only bright spot that day was spending time with Mark.
Mark was so caring and thoughtful. He got me out of the house, away from Cassandra with the excuse of studying. Giving me the keys to drive his Mustang, we went out for pizza at Shakey's Pizza at our special table, and then bowled and played pool at Camelot Lanes before heading to Chase and Vicki's place to play Monopoly. That was my idea of the perfect birthday, only Mark wouldn't be here this time. I started to dread the days as my birthday approached.
A couple of days later, it was my seventeenth birthday, like it or not. Instead of spending it surrounded by family and friends, I was surrounded by virtual strangers. I had been living in Cambridge Home for Girls for almost week when my birthday rolled around. I wasn't sure if I would hear from my family, so I was surprised when I received a letter. It was written with a poisoned pen. My mother was so kind as to write, describing all of the horrible things that would happen in my future. She told me I would have no education, no friends, and no family because I'd made the decision to walk away from her. Believe me; I had no choice, but to walk away from her, if I wanted to keep my sanity.
Her letter contained the last words of a "loving" mother. In all honesty, Cassandra Wolf never was a loving mother. It strengthened my resolve never to see my abusive, alcoholic mother again. It brought back all of the pain I'd experienced in my childhood at her hands in one big wave. I was shaking as I read her correspondence. The girls in Cambridge House reached out to me, and I found I was finally accepting kindness from strangers. It was comforting. I was living in the house with fourteen other girls who were in similar situations. Just like on my first day in the house, it started with Melanie.
I got the letter in the morning. Mrs. Foster called me into her office to give it to me. She thought she was handing me something favorable from my family for my birthday. Tears were rolling down my face in a flood. I handed it back to her, so she could read it herself.
That's when she said the words I'd been waiting for someone to say my entire life. "Don't worry, dear. You never have to see your mother again, if you don't want to." As she walked out of the office to talk to Darlene, one of the other housemothers, I ran upstairs to lie down. Shortly thereafter, Melanie came up to my room.
"I heard about the letter. I'm really sorry. Mrs. Foster told Darlene that you're off restriction for the day. Isn't that great? Let's go to Dairy Queen after school, my treat. We have to celebrate your birthday." Melanie continued on about plans for us for the weekend, roller-skating on Friday, the field trip on Saturday, and going to the movies on Sunday.
After Melanie and the others went to school, I went out onto the back porch. I needed some alone time. I sat down and pulled out a picture of my grandparents. I saw Alex in the driveway. He saw me and walked over.
"Hey, birthday girl. What's that?" I showed him the picture. "Oh, your parents. I bet you miss them a lot."
I looked at him, astonished he just revealed my other big lie. I finally chose to be honest about it. I'd told too many lies for too long, and I was sick of it. "Those are my grandparents, not my parents. They raised me for most of my life. I do miss them."
"Hey, you wanna go somewhere? I heard you're off restriction for the day. I thought that you might want to go for a drive. Let's get out of here."
"Don't you have class today?"
"It's finals week. Don't worry about it, no finals today."
"Okay. Let me go inside and ask one of the housemothers if it's okay."
"Sure, I'll be in the driveway waiting."
When I went inside, I saw Callie in the kitchen. "Hey, Alex wants to take me for a drive. Is that okay?"
Callie grinned. "Sure. Have fun. Be back in time for dinner. Dinner's at 4:30."
I glanced at her for a minute. It was 9:30 in the morning. Why did she think I'd be gone so long? "I'm not going to be gone that long. One Life to Live comes on at one o'clock. I'll be back in time for lunch, so I don't miss it."
"That's a TV show. You can miss it today." Is she kidding?
"No way! It's my favorite show. There aren't any reruns. I can't miss it. If I go a day without Max Holden, I'll die!" I put the back of my hand to my forehead as I pleaded my case for dramatic effect.
"You've got a flesh and blood guy waiting for you in the driveway, and you're worried about missing a character on TV."
"Max Holden is not just a character on TV. I've been watching him on the show every day since the first day he showed up. I tape it when I can't watch. He's every woman's fantasy, the sexiest man alive." I wish he were real.
"How about this? I'll tape it for you this afternoon. We can watch it together tonight." It was my turn to grin. I vowed to get Callie hooked on One Life to Live.
With that issue sorted out, I went back outside. Alex stood by his white 1988 Jeep Wrangler Laredo 4x4 complete with a hardtop. I'd watched him wash and wax it in the driveway. It was funny because that was the type of vehicle I'd always pictured Max Holden driving, too. We got inside, and he handed me a small present.
"You didn't have to get me a gift. You don't even know me."
"Yes, I do. Open it, Kat." That's when he revealed another piece of the puzzle. The only people who have ever called me Kat were boys I'd kissed. I hadn't kissed that many boys. It was obvious he knew me now. I just wished I could remember how. I tore into the wrapping quickly. Inside were two cassette tapes, the soundtracks from the movie, Dirty Dancing. It was my all-time fave.
"Wow, thank you. Dirty Dancing is my favorite movie."
"I know. Pop it in." Soon, the Jeep was filled with familiar sounds coming from the tape deck.
The Jeep was traveling down Cleveland Avenue into Merrillville, and I got really nervous. "Close your eyes," he said, gently.
I closed my eyes and prayed that nothing bad would happen. I had a hard time trusting people. The Jeep stopped. "Wait right here a minute. I'll be right back. Keep your eyes closed, or you'll ruin the surprise." I kept my eyes shut, and sat there horrified at the possibility Cassandra might be waiting for me when it was time to open them. I listened to the music and thought about how much I loved Dirty Dancing. I remembered trying to practice the dance steps from the movie with Jake, my now ex-boyfriend. That was a really complicated relationship. I hadn't thought about Jake in a long time. I hadn't seen or spoken to him since I started dating Mark.
I got lost in the music, thinking about the dance steps. Next to Max Holden, Johnny Castle was my other favorite fictional character. Alex returned and put something in my lap. A floral aroma filled my nostrils. Was it orchids? Those were my grandmother's favorite flowers. The wheels began to move again for a few minutes before the vehicle came to a grinding halt.
"We're here. I wanted to be clever and get the location right, but I've forgotten. You'll have to open your eyes and direct me."
I slowly opened my eyes. We were at the entrance to Calumet Park Cemetery, where my grandmother was buried. "Wow, this is where..."
"I know. That's why we're here."
I looked at the bouquet in my lap. I brought them to me for a big whiff. That smell took me back to fond childhood memories. The arrangement contained delicate purple orchids with tropical leaves and ferns in a plum-colored glass cube. Alex pulled one out and put it in my hair behind my left ear. "Thank you. I don't know what to say."
"Tell me where to go. Let's get these flowers where they belong."
I gave him the directions to my grandmother's final resting place. The vehicle stopped, and it was time to get out of the car. I walked over, put the bouquet down on her grave, and said a prayer. Tears threatened to fall. I tried to stay strong. I never used to cry when I went to the cemetery, but it had been such a long time since I'd done this. I felt guilty and sad. Up until this point, Alex had stayed in the background, letting me do this on my own, but when I started crying, he came up to me and put his arms around me. My tears soaked his shirt.
"I just miss her so much. I've been so busy trying to run from my past that I hadn't taken the time to think about the good things I left behind."
He gently rubbed my back. "I figured as much. How long has it been since you were here last?"
"Over a year. It got to the point where no one wanted to bring me anymore; even Grandpa stopped coming here for a while. How do you know about this?"
"Because I know you. I've known you a long time."
"Care to explain why I can't remember you."
"I'd like to know the answer to that one myself, but I'll tell you this. Even though I've known about you for a long time, we didn't officially meet until the last time we saw each other. That's the night you can't remember."
"Why don't you enlighten me then?"
He shook his head firmly. "No, I'd like you to remember that one on your own. I know you will eventually. How about I tell you about all the times before then?"
"Okay, I gotta hear this. Why do you know so much about me, if we only met one night?"
"Slow down, Kat. There's a lot to talk about here."
"What, calling you Kat?"
"Yeah, that makes me uncomfortable. There are only about three guys who have ever called me Kat. They were guys I got really personal with, mostly after a few drinks. So we-?" I asked the question, but I was hesitant to know the answer.
"Almost, not quite. I honestly didn't know how old you were. When I first saw you in '84, you told people you were fifteen."
"Thanks for not taking advantage of me while I was too drunk to think straight."
"Not a problem, Katie. I'm not such a bad guy. Ever since you arrived at Cambridge, you've been treating me like public enemy number one."
"I'm sorry. I just felt like I had to protect myself. I wanted a fresh start. I didn't want to be Kathy Wolf anymore. To be honest, that's never even been my real name. My name is really Katherine Steele. That's not a lie. My real mother is the one who called me Kathy. My mother also used Wolf as my last name for most of my life. I liked it for a while because I could tell people that my grandparents were my parents. Obviously, that's the story I told you, too. What about '84? When did you see me last?"
"I last saw you in '87." That made sense to me because I stopped drinking and partying in 1987 when I met Mark. He continued, "The first time I saw you was at the Ross Pool." I remember the place he was talking about. The Ross Pool was a place where I had hung out with my friends every summer since I was ten years old. I hadn't been there in almost two years. "You were wearing a skimpy leopard print, and your hair was a very light brown. It almost looked dark blonde."
"I spent a lot of time in the sun, and I used Sun-In. I can't believe you remember what I was wearing." I remembered that bikini, too. The bikini was Annabelle's idea, and lying about my age was Vicki's.
"I wanted to meet you, but you were busy with your arm around some guy with light brown hair most of the time."
"That's Jake. It's a long, complicated story. When I was with Jake, and things were good, I never saw any other guy in the room."
We got back in the Jeep. "How did you know about my grandmother?"
"I was at the funeral. That guy, Jake, told me you considered your grandparents to be your parents because they raised you. That's why I've never said anything to the contrary. It's like they almost adopted you." I nodded. "It's hard to believe Cassandra is your mother anyway. I heard her tell someone once that she was your sister."
At this point, my heart thumped hard in my chest. He knew about my real mother, and he knew her name. What surprises were in store for me next?
"Katie, chill out. It's okay. I'm going to prove to you that you can trust me."
I hated the stress of constantly being on guard, of keeping myself hidden from my friends. Cassandra was simply someone I never wanted to see again, yet she constantly attempted to force herself back into my life. She'd used so many different methods in the past that I found it almost impossible to relax around anyone who might know my family. However, there was just something about Alex that made me feel so, safe. How crazy is that?
"Okay, fine. So, what were you doing at my grandmother's funeral?" I couldn't help myself from eyeing him with suspicion.
"Promise me you won't freak out or get mad."
That's when I started to freak out inside myself because nothing good could come from that statement.