There were three defining moments in my young life. The first occurred when I was five years old. That was when I first met my father. My mother picked me up from pre-k and we caught the train down to DC. It was a beautiful spring day and we met this very tall black man at the zoo entrance. It was the first time I realized that I was black. My mother had long blond hair and the fairest skin. My hair was sandy brown, long, and curly. My skin was only a few shades darker than my mother’s and significantly lighter than my father’s skin. Kids in school would tell me I was mixed but I didn’t understand. I remember my dad wanting to pick me up but I wouldn’t let my mother’s hand go. After a while I held his hand as well. They talked about grown up things that I didn’t pay any attention to. Every time we stopped at a new exhibit, my dad would kneel down and read the information about the animal to me. I wanted to stay at the panther exhibit. The giant cat was sitting not too far from the viewing glass. I locked eyes with the cat and began to have a conversation with it. My dad knelt down next to me. My mom tried to tell me to stop talking to the cat. I remember my dad telling her to hush.
“Bianca has found someone who understands her.”
His words stuck with me. After I was ready to go I let him pick me up and carry me the rest of the visit. He had a ring on his finger that I liked. It was gold with diamonds and black onyx. All I knew was that it was shiny and pretty. Before we left the zoo, he brought me a necklace and a big stuffed panther. My dad took the little charm off the chain it came on. Then he took off his ring and put it on the chain. My mother protested as he put it around my neck. She kept saying I would lose it. My dad looked in my eyes and asked me if I would lose it. I told him no and gave him a hug. For years I loved him more than anything in the world.
The second moment changed that for me. My mother had periods of time when she would sleep for days. It got worse as I got older. When I was ten she had begun drinking, or that is when I began to notice it. Many days I would come home from the private school my dad paid for and take care of her. She would try to help me with my homework when she was sober, but that was rare. Most times she would send me down to the library. My mother never let me see her drink. I would see her with cups and glasses of stuff but I never knew what was in it. She kept the bottles locked in her room. She did sober up for the quarterly visits from my dad. She made me promise not to tell him about her being sick. It was our secret.
One afternoon I came home from summer camp and my mom was lying on the floor in the kitchen. I tried to wake her up but she wouldn’t. She was barely breathing. I was so scared that I called 911. The social worker at the hospital told me that my mother would have to stay for a few days. The only number I had to give her was my dad’s office number. His assistant tracked him down in New York. He talked to the social worker and, a few hours later, my grandmother arrived to pick me up. I had only met her once before on one of my dad’s visits. My grandmother drove me to her house in Virginia. I got to meet my grandfather, uncles, aunts, and cousins I had never met before. I also met my brother Benjamin who had come to stay for the summer. The two people I instantly bonded with were my aunt Mina, who was actually only a few months older than me, and my Granny. Granny was my dad’s grandmother. Most days Granny, Mina and I were the only women in the house. All of my cousins were boys. It was like being in the Smurf village.
My father came after I was there for two days. He told me that he saw my mother at the hospital. He said that she was going to have to stay in a hospital for a month or so in order for her to get better. As much as I like being with family, I worried about my mother. I was all she had. Her parents stopped talking to her while she was pregnant with me. After a month went by, my father asked if I wanted to stay with my grandparents. He worked a lot and that involved travelling. I told him that I wanted to go back with my mother. I remember overhearing him argue with my grandparents. They didn’t want him to let me go. In the end he told them simply that it was my decision. He drove me home the very next day.
The third defining moment happened when I was fourteen. My mother had been dating a guy for a while and he got her hooked on drugs. My life turned into night and day. At night I was taking care of myself, and sometimes taking care of my mother. She couldn’t keep a job. I never actually saw her take drugs, but living in Baltimore taught me what someone who was strung out looked like. During the day I was attending a prestigious private school. I would lie and tell everyone that I lived downtown and I liked catching the bus and subway instead of having my mother drive me. My dad would still visit me quarterly up until we had a huge fight. He kept asking about my mother and saying things didn’t seem right. I remember the look on his face when I told him that it wasn’t any of his business.
“You only play dad four times a year. Don’t worry about it.”
I knew that it hurt him. At the time I didn’t care. I was tired and knew that if I told him the truth he would take me from my mother. I couldn’t abandon her. After that visit our phone was turned off. Usually I would remind her to pay it but I gave up. It began to get bad at that point. Things were slowly going missing in the house. I began to wear my dad’s ring around my neck at all times. One night my mother came into my room and began to tear it apart like she was looking for something. I knew what she wanted. She looked at me and went straight for my neck.
“Give it to me!” She yelled.
“No. Mommy you can’t have it.”
“You don’t understand. I need it!”
I pushed her as hard as I could and she hit the edge of my bedroom door and slid down to the floor. She began to cry. Tears came down my face but I didn’t sob. I had stopped sobbing a few months earlier. After a few minutes she got up and grabbed me by my hair.
“Come on then you selfish bitch.”
My mom dragged me out of the apartment in my night gown, no shoes. It was in the forties, actually warm for February. We went down the street a few blocks and finally turned the corner. There were a few guys sitting on some steps and two leaning against a car. She pushed me over to one of the guys who were leaning against the car.
“Here Tony. I can’t get the money. She won’t give me the ring.”
“Amy, what the fuck are you doing?” The guy, Tony, looked at me and then back at my mother.
“Take the ring from her or just take her.” I watched my mom scratch her arm. I could tell she was in need of a fix.
“Bitch, are you really fucking giving me your kid?”
“She is a virgin. You can keep her. I can’t get you the money. She is all I have.”
I looked at my mom. More tears fell down my cheek as I could see her looking through me instead of at me. That was the moment when I knew she was gone. I wasn’t sure how much money she owed Tony or what was going on. I was just scared for her. I looked at Tony and bit my lip. “Please don’t hurt her.”
Tony looked at me and then waved to one of the guys on the stoop. The guy got up and walked a short distance with my mother. Then she ran off and he came back. Tony looked down at my bare feet. He opened up his car door.
“Get in.” When I hesitated for a second, he raised his eyebrow. Then I got in the car and sat there. I listened to him explain to the guy standing next to him how my mother had given one of the younger boys a VCR and cd player a few days before but neither worked. Tony tracked my mom down and let her know that he wanted cash. After they laughed, Tony shook hands with the guy and walked around to the driver’s side of the car. He got in and looked at me.
“What’s your name?”
“Y’all live over there in the apartments up the street, right?”
Tony started the car and drove me home. He walked me up to the apartment. One look around the place and he turned to me. “Get your stuff.”
“Pack whatever you can’t live without and let’s go. This is fucking ridiculous.”
“But my mom…”
“Just sold you to me for $300 dollars.”
The reality of Tony’s words stung. I went to my room, put on shoes, and grabbed my things. We headed downstairs and got back in his car.