On My Own

Just before my 17th birthday, at the end of April of my junior year of high school, I moved out on my own, which consisted mainly of moving my things from Aunt Freda’s house into the manager’s quarters of the Braeside, the motel I worked at, with Cheryl, my alcoholic co-worker, and her 9 year-old. I had been working at the Braeside since I was 12 or 13, starting with babysitting and gradually taking on more responsibility. My manager’s marriage fell apart and she resigned, going to live with her father in southern NH and working for a company she had family ties with that ran midway stands at fairs over the summer. I’m fairly sure Annette, my manager, negotiated with the owner for Cheryl and I to move in. We were, after all, the work force, and with Annette and her car gone, neither of us would have a way to get to work cleaning the 12 rooms and running the front desk. So the owner, who owned a few other businesses in town but was based out of and owned more businesses in Maine, allowed us to move in, rent-free, in exchange for one of us being on the premises 24×7 while she looked for a new manager.

Initially, I think my parents and I kept up the ruse of visitation. I remember catching the bus to school from the Braeside only once or twice; it just far enough out of town that I’d have to use the narrow shoulder of Rt 4 to walk anywhere. Luckily, Susan Steele and her Dad, my 7th grade English teacher, drove to school every morning past the Braeside and offered to give me a ride when I needed it, which I remember initially not being every day.

The day I moved in I also had to work, cleaning rooms in the morning and watch the front desk in the afternoon, with just enough time to make one trip from Aunt Freda’s house. My mother ended up packing the rest of my things and brought it to my new room at the motel. She also went grocery shopping for me, getting some essentials, easy things that I could fix on my own.

The weirdest thing for me was that all of Annette’s things were, of course, moved out of the house, which was attached to the center back of the motel and included the front desk and reception area. The house looked weird, as houses do when they are emptied. I took a spare mattress and box spring from the motel storage, along with a spare dresser, and moved them into my room, which was over the front desk & reception area. Cheryl spent the afternoon moving her furniture, from a trailer on Hartland Hill Road to the rest of the house – she provided a kitchen table, living room furniture, and of course furniture for her bedroom and her daughter’s bedroom, all at the back of the house. When we were done, it still looked somewhat sad and empty, Annette-less.

I was relieved to finally be in one place, instead of spending nearly every night at a different house. Moving in with my Dad full-time wasn’t an option, since my stepmother had thrown me out the previous winter and we had just begun to reconcile at the beginning of the school year. Moving in with my Mom full-time wasn’t an option either, as I still didn’t want to switch schools and she didn’t want to drive me (or let me drive) from Wilder to Woodstock every school day. And though I’d kept my grades up, made honor roll in all of my classes (all of which were smarty-pants, advanced classes except for math and I’d taken 2 languages, French & Spanish), the constant moving was becoming overwhelming. So my parents took pity on me and allowed me to move into the Braeside.

I was hoping the Braeside would be a permanent solution to my housing dilemma until I graduated and went off to college, if that is in fact what I was going to do after graduation. I had started dating a guy who was a year older than me with whom I’d had various crushes on since junior high, when he started going to WUHS. Our families also knew each other well; our grandparents had been neighbors, my grandmother worked in his uncle’s shop for a long time. Moving into the Braeside gave us the freedom to spend whole nights together, which actually happened less than you might suspect.

The Braeside might have worked long-term in spite of all of the obvious things that were wrong with the plan. Cheryl and I got along well, her daughter and I got along well. Like many of my friends, I already had a fake ID that got me into bars, The Gin Mill in Queechee (phonetically 2 syllables, kwee-chee), which was located (to my continuing amusement) in the same building that now houses Mid-Vermont Christian School. We could get kegs in Rutland, or have older party friends get them for us. Moving in with Cheryl meant that I could get alcohol with less of a risk of getting caught.

My parents wouldn’t have to really parent me much as long as I kept my grades up and stayed out of trouble. They’d just have to keep in touch, make sure I had food, medical care if I got sick – things like that. I think by that point my Dad was already absorbed or overwhelmed with his new insta-family and had abdicated (in my mind, anyway) a lot of his parenting responsibility (particularly when he allowed his new wife to throw me out of their house).

My mother, who often said that she felt like she was growing up with me because her teen years had been so repressive, had been seriously dating a man, Bill, who lived in Hanover, NH (basically just across the river from Wilder) for about a year and a half. She met him at a Parents Without Partners meeting and they hit it off. He had four children from his previous marriage: two daughters who were in college, a son a year older than me, a daughter 2 or 3 years younger than me. He lived in a 3-bedroom duplex in Hanover owned by his mother, who lived in the other half.

Mom and Bill came to visit me at the Braeside one day in late May or early June. I was in the kitchen, doing dishes, and they were acting … strange. Not that smiling and holding hands is strange, but when Mom tried to get me to look at her left hand, palm down – that was strange. And I still didn’t get it; she actually had to tell me that they’d just come from (I think) Fred Doubleday’s (actually, Aunt Freda’s and my grandmother’s cousin – they were named after the same beloved Fred), the Justice of the Peace in Woodstock. They had gotten married. I was happy for them, assuming that was what they really wanted, live and let-live, if it makes you happy, etc., and if I wasn’t, I covered it up because I didn’t want to upset my Mom. This meant that Mom would move into Bill’s, because he needed to be near his mother, who had health problems, and he didn’t want my now-step-brother & step-sister to change schools, which would have been Hartford. She rented the condo in Wilder, I think to some Dartmouth grad students, and moved. What did I care, really? I had my own place; what my parents did no longer really affected me. And I had realized by this point, that I really had no say in what they did and that trusting either of them was risky.

By early June, the owner of the Braeside had found a new manager, who would live off-site but be responsible for operating the motel. Deb and her son Kenny had moved up from, if I recall correctly, Tennessee. Shortly after I met her, one of my friends told me that Deb was her Aunt. I knew my friend’s mother, and I guess I could see a family resemblance, but where my friend’s mom was quiet and rational, conservative in appearance (little to no make-up, generally dressing like everyone’s dream New England mom, i.e., preppy), Deb was outgoing, colorful both in words (southern accent & dialect) and dress (lots of jeans and reds) and makeup (lots). She gradually let it be known that she and Kenny had run from a man, perhaps an abusive man, and that her sister had helped her out by giving her a place to go and finding this job.

I wasn’t entirely sure of how true this story about the man was or really what to believe from either Deb or Kenny. To be honest, it really didn’t matter. What ended up mattering was this: Deb started asserting her authority as manager and I, in my youthful over-confidence, started to resist the change. Of course she was going to do things differently than Annette did, but I didn’t realize that then nor did I adjust well to the change. In some ways, I suppose you could see it as me resisting any authority. I mean really: on my own at 17? Why was that, exactly? Would an outsider assume I had authority problems? That may be how Deb saw it – I was just a kid and what the hell did I know?

But Deb was also a functioning alcoholic and the functioning part of the equation started to fall apart the more comfortable she got with Cheryl and I. At the beginning of July, Cheryl pointed out the bottle of Jack Daniels Deb had starting keeping in one of our kitchen cupboards and that she would start each work day with a shot or two in her coffee. She got so drunk one night at the Gin Mill that someone called us and drove her to the motel, where she crashed on the couch (or maybe in an empty room?).

Cheryl and I had no direct contact with the owner, although Annette was still checking in every now and then and we could have (or did? I don’t remember now) told the owner about what was going on. But we both knew that would be the kettle calling the pot black. My boyfriend came over one night after school ended, maybe his last weekend in town before he spent the summer out west working. Cheryl drank us both under the table – literally, to the point where I had to help my guy to the toilet. Cheryl and I both talked pretty freely about drinking a lot, so who were we to go to the owner with this when really, there was no evident damage?

Eventually, Deb and I had a confrontation. I don’t remember it very well, but it ended with her firing me and me being only too happy to get out of there. But now I had another problem: where would I go live? My mother had rented her condo. My cousin had taken my room (or was planning on taking it) at Aunt Freda’s. This left me with one option: my Dad’s house. I think he’s even the one I called to come get me after Deb fired me. And I must have been in touch with him and my mother, I’m pretty sure they both knew about what was going on with Deb.

So in mid-July, I moved into my Dad’s. Once again, Annette came to my rescue: I had three weeks before my boyfriend was flying me out to spend a week with him and Annette’s mid-way connection, her twin sister, needed help in the fried dough stand. The first fair I worked with them was in Norwich. The only thing I remember from that fair was stuffing a 1’x1’ block of shortening into the deep fryer, which was fun for the first 2 minutes and not so great after that. The next fair I worked was in Cornish, NH. The woman who ran the cotton candy and sno cone stand ended up needing help more than Annette and her sister, so I learned how to make cotton candy and sno cones. The Cornish fair was much busier than the Norwich fair and at the time, I remember realizing that I was too busy to look for anyone I knew. It’s funny to me now, but I didn’t even know enough to look around for J.D. Salinger or his wife, who figures prominently in the Cornish Fair, particularly with quilts.

The last fair I worked was further south in New Hampshire, probably somewhere around Keene. I spent the weekend with Annette in her sister’s family’s trailer, which was literally a trailer hauled by an 18-wheeler converted into living space. I think I slept on the living room floor or the couch and I was ever so thankful for the shower in that trailer. I really liked working in the cotton candy stand; it got so busy that you no longer had to think, just do. Not-thinking requires a lot of soda (to replenish the fluid lost through hot humid afternoons in what is essentially a little tin box) and as much cotton candy as you can get away with (a lot; I never got sick of it).

Annette’s husband was supposed to pick his daughter up on Sunday for a visit that during that coming week. He had agreed to give me a rider to my Mom’s, in Hanover, where I’d get my laundry done, get a good night’s sleep; the next morning she would drive me to Manchester, NH and I’d fly out to spend a week (or two?) with my guy. Well, he didn’t show up. She called and waited, called and waited, and pretty soon, it was getting late. It became clear that he wasn’t going to show up, so Annette drove me to the bus station in Brattleboro and paid for my bus fare to White River, Jct, where my mother picked me up. I felt awful for Annette’s daughter, who had been looking forward to a visit with her Dad. She didn’t understand why he hadn’t shown up (neither did I). I found out that later, he thought it was the following weekend (or so he said).

Arriving late, too late to do my laundry according to my mother, and tired and with a plan (for the night and my life) that went completely off the rails, arriving in a house that really had no room for me – a house planned with me specifically not in the picture (I would bunk on the couch) – I lost it. I think the laundry issue was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I started yelling, screeching probably, and throwing things around. My mother was trying to shush me because (I thought, and still think) “Oh my god! What will my new mother-in-law think? What will my new neighbors think?”

I had had similar outbursts (if I’m being somewhat objective) or tantrums (as they are known in my family) for much of my life. Definitely tantrums was I was smaller, though I’d called down from, say, 7-13, and then with the divorce and puberty I started losing it again occasionally. One day shortly after my parents split, probably June or July of 1986, I took the little goldfish bowl and the three resident zebra danios (which I’d gotten for my 13th birthday, in early May), told my mother I didn’t want them anymore, and proceeded outside with them. When she tried to stop me on my way to the brook across the street where I was clearly going to dump them, maybe by telling me they’d die in the brook, I ended the very short argument with some shrieking and by smashing the bowl on the ground and running back in the house to hide in my room (“If you’re going to bawl, go bawl in your room,” I had heard many times and so that is where I went.)

So this latest outburst was nothing really new for my mother. But unlike previous outbursts, I had no safe place to run to – it wasn’t my house, it would never be my house. I ran out the front door and down the street and ended up in a hedge up against (I think) some condominiums. I heard my mom & step-family trying to find me, but I stayed in the bushes until I calmed down and then I walked back to the duplex. I did do laundry that night, though there was not enough time to dry everything so I wore a damp dress on the plane for the reunion with my beloved, who’s family life was even worse than mine.

I’m sometimes surprised I actually came home from that trip. It would have been so easy to start a life out west, but that wasn’t what I wanted: I didn’t want to run away, I wanted to legitimately get out, to graduate from high school, make all of my hard work and advanced classes count for something by getting into college and then living happily ever after. The happily ever after of not going to college, or not going far enough away, wasn’t so happy – I associated a lot of my unhappiness with Vermont and, of course, my family (for one other reason I still haven’t explained). Though I ran away, or threatened to run away, many times when I was younger (let’s say, under 10), when actually faced with the possibility, I couldn’t leave everything behind and do it.

When I got home, my Dad had found a car in my budget and bought it with the money that I had been saving. He helped me set up insurance, which I paid for, showed me how to check & fill the oil, and one weekend, replaced the muffler. I found another job that August; I would work Saturday and Sunday mornings at the Village Inn serving breakfast to guests and stay through 4pm, when the owner would come back and to check guests in and start setting up for dinner. I also must have started late summer soccer practice.

I also ran into Cheryl and her daughter somewhere, probably that fall. Cheryl had started AA and had met a man, another recovering alcoholic, there. She told me that one night, not long after I left, she drank so much that she blacked out, which wasn’t that unusual. But she had beat her daughter. Cheryl was (and is, I assume) a gentle, well-intentioned woman who would never do that to her daughter, but the evidence was there in the bruises and the overturned furniture. She stopped drinking. I don’t know under what circumstances she left the Braeside, or where she or her daughter are now. They are, I guess, two of the people I left behind and didn’t look back for, too afraid of slipping into that life myself.

So things fell apart and came back together again, but not for long.

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