By Patti Tod-Yarosz
It wasn’t all bad. I was a cheerleader and made friends with a tiny little girl who was funny and eschewed the popular girl tribe as much as I. We were great allies in the war on our souls, the social war of junior high. It was awesome because she was made captain of the squad, this big-hearted person, so delicate and small, but she could cheer her ass off. We hung out and tried our best to ignore the chaos the adults in our lives put upon us. We wanted to be young. And we wanted to be old enough. She was my one true friend in that town. When I left, I left behind the ashes of a huge house fire, a ghost, any respect I may have had for any of the adults in that house, and my spot on the cheerleading squad. I don’t remember saying good bye.
I moved in with Pam and her son and her new husband and a kitten with a broken leg. Pam had married The Small Town Hot Guy with great hair, beautiful green eyes (there was that Jason Steel, again), and a bright yellow Pontiac Firebird. My older, socially fragile, overly romantic sister did not stand a chance against his charms. The fact that he was not what she needed came into play later. He was enthusiastic. She was beautiful, quirky, shy, and easy to manipulate. She exuded such a strange combination of sadness and inexperience. Maybe his early intentions were good. I never liked him. I wanted to, but there was this dark underbelly of his that I would see once in a while and it was mean and selfish and I knew he thought he was better than us. Even at thirteen, I was rarely disarmed by a pretty face.
They rented an old farm house just outside of Bloomingdale, so when the other shoe dropped at the mad house in town, she took me in to help save me. She was a good soul. Their house caught fire under very shady circumstances while she was in Florida with him visiting his parents. (I was at Grandma’s in Kalamazoo, visiting for Christmas while Pam and Kirk were in Florida. By now, Mom, Jonah and Miriam were living with Grandma, the family experiment having imploded at the house in Bloomingdale.) Even Pam’s car, a brown and gold Gran Torino, caught fire and burned up in the driveway. Our actual framed family tree, going back well over a century and a half to Ireland, all her sweet macramé creations, my cheerleading outfit, and everything we owned was lost in that fire. Pam was incredibly creatively talented. She made macramé lamps, shelves, plant hangers, all elaborate and stunning. In the 1970’s, that was gold. Looking at that charred pit where her home had been felt like someone had split my guts open. It felt like hell had opened up and swallowed a little part of each of us.
We packed up the very little we had left and it all fit into the trunk of his bright yellow Firebird. Kirk drove the twenty plus hours straight to Ft. Pierce, Florida. It would be my first trip to Florida, but not my last. I fell asleep in the dark of mid-west highways and woke up in the dusky misty dawn of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. That gave way to the orange mud and cypress trees of Georgia. I felt like a million bucks in the back seat of that cool car. Even with the loss, I was happy. Happy to be driving away from all the drama and darkness my mother had become. Happy to be given a new chance with a new life in a new land. Even Pam’s soft sobbing from the front passenger seat could not still the flight my heart had taken.
But even paradise has a dark side. Things went well for the newlyweds for only a short time. It became obvious that her new husband resented her four year old son. Kirk’s family played a big role in the Florida trip. They were a large family from Michigan who had set up shop in Ft. Pierce, Florida. They seemed to lack sincerity and they made me a little nervous. Kirk and Pam were so young. He was no Jason Steel and no matter how she tried to make it so, it wasn’t real.
I went to an all eighth-grade school. It was huge and the school was designed so the hallways between classrooms were outside. It was so different for a Midwest girl. The few clothes I had were winter clothes, since we moved in December and all my summer clothes were burned up in the fire. I was pasty white and I wore the wrong shoes. Any leg up I may have had socially was gone. It was just me and my inner child and she was in no mood. There was a girl on the bus with a big mouth and she saw my shoes, pasty whiteness, and my weaknesses. I became her target. She would say little things at first, “Nice shoes. Where did you get those? In the Sears catalog?” she laughed at her joke with her big mouth wide open. People around her laughed, too, her henchmen never far from her side. It went on and on for a few weeks until one day she got behind me and shoved me. Something in me snapped and me and my inner child realized we were at the end of our rope. We had to take care of this problem. So I told the Jason Steel wanna be that night at dinner what she had been doing. He was excited. “You have to kick her ass. If you don’t, she’s going to keep at you. Just punch her in the face,” he said while chewing his Steak’Um. “Come on,” he said, pushing away from the table, “I was a Golden Gloves Boxer. Didja know that? I’ll show you some moves so you can beat her ass.” “Kirk, don’t do that, leave Patsy alone!” Pam said, shaking her head. “Aw, come on, this’ll do her good.” He took me in the back yard amid the grapefruit trees that had lost all their fruit in the last tropical storm and the fruit lay rotting in the sparse, rough grass. It was hot out there. My hair kept sticking to my face and I stepped on a few of those squishy, rotting grapefruits. I was in hell. But he showed me defensive moves, parrying moves. He showed me how to punch and grab by the neck and take someone down. In short, he kicked my ass all over that back yard. After we were through and I was bruised but pumped up, he said, “Don’t punch first. Make her. That way, if she doesn’t hit you, she looks like a pussy. But if she does, block it and punch her, right here, in the diaphragm. Girls can’t take a solid punch to the diaphragm. She’ll go down like a rotten sack of potatoes. And when you punch, keep your wrist straight or you’ll hurt yourself.” He looked at me with those amazing green eyes in that sad back yard and I knew I could do this. He had given me the basic tools for standing up for myself. I never liked him more than I did at that moment. I think he felt the same way.
So I went to school equipped with my kicking some ass arsenal. It took a few days, but I finally had an opening. Big mouth started saying something about my glasses, which was stupid because they were just glasses and I needed them, but I wasn’t listening to her words. I was breathing and going over my moves. When the bus stopped, I stood up and told her, “Why don’t you just shut your big, stupid mouth. Nobody cares what you think.” She looked shocked. I had never spoken a word to her. The line on the bus started moving slowly forward. She was way taller than me and she never took her eyes off me as the line of people filed off the bus. She was ahead of me and she got off first. I tensed, ready for her to punch me as soon as I stepped onto the parking lot, but she was walking away. ‘No, she isn’t just walking away!’, I thought. I called out,” Hey, sleestak, what’s your hurry?’ She turned around again, with a look of shock on her face. “Are you talking to me?” she asked incredulously. “I don’t see any other sleestak here, do you?” I asked back. She was at a loss for words. I was just getting started. All the shit that had gone down the last few months was screaming out of my heart like a runaway freight train. I walked toward her and said, “You got a problem with me. You talk shit all the time. Well let’s finish it here, now, because I’m sick of hearing your voice.” People had gathered. Her henchmen stood slack jawed, drooling all over themselves in surprise and anticipation. They were probably sick of her voice, too, but lacked the stones to ever say so. It was true, the tables had turned. Kirk was right. Bullies hate being called out. “What do you mean?” she asked, as if I was introducing an idea completely new and foreign to her. “You know what I mean,” I squeezed out between my teeth, like Clint Eastwood. I was the Man with No Name, the High Plains Drifter and I was about to give the bad guy a taste of her own medicine. The adrenaline rush was intoxicating. I walked slowly up to her through the crowd. “Let’s finish this RIGHT NOW. Come on, punch me. Isn’t that what you want?” I asked her, looking up into her still, shocked face. I realized she was scared. I wanted to punch her, but I remembered what Kirk had said about how much better it is if she swings first. “Then she gets suspended, not you!” he had told me with the confidence of someone who really knew how all this works. But she would not punch me. I watched the air slowly leak out of her. As she deflated, her chin fell until it almost touched her neck. She said to her henchmen, “Let’s go, we’ll be late to class,” as she turned around, shoulders hunched. Everyone looked back at me. I said, “If you ever say one more word to me or about me, I will rip your arm off and beat you with it. Do you understand?” By now all the little voyeurs were trickling away, realizing there would be no fight. She never said a word to me again and even avoided me. It was my first time standing up to a bully and it was great practice for later, when I would come face to face with someone trying to push me or someone else around. This incident had created a small-time vigilante in me that would go to the rescue of many underdogs and victims. It had created a monster, a small, beautiful monster.
Patti Tod-Yarosz is a Kalamazoo, Michigan native who has made many places her home. Her gypsy heart has always held the same dream: ‘To thine own self be true.’ Character driven and the truth as she remembers it, her memoir ‘Baby’ takes us through a childhood filled with dreams, ghosts, isolation, forgiveness and love. Life is filled with flawed characters. ‘Baby’ is the good and the bad in all of us.