I had swag, a slow walk with just enough sass. Sauntering my round ass helped me act like I belonged, wherever I was. Blond hair feathered around my freckled face. I smiled with a giggle, a little sideways, gloss shining on pink lips. My pucker looked like childhood, and my cheeks shined in the cool wind of an Oakland night. The red encircling these deep blue eyes told a different story but I could fool you still. Just let me laugh.
When the men stopped their cars, I lit up. It was an act, of course, but they fell for it.
“What’s your name?”
“Felicia. What’s yours baby?”
It went fast from there. “How much?”
“You got a place?”
“Sure. Pull around the corner to the alley.”
Then there was no more talking, just awkward fumbling, sometimes a grunt. Always fast. Except when they were greedy. Or mean. I hated those men. But I didn’t back down. Sometimes I had to act really hard, or threaten back. “My man, he’s watching. You better let me out and get the fuck on.”
Other times, when I was alone, scared, too far from my street, I just took it. “Fucking whore,” a big man with a dark completion and nasty fingernails in a primer covered 70’s era pimp Cadillac swore as he hit. One cheek, then the other, grabbing my hair. He told me over and over, “Stupid bitch. Fucking nasty whore.”
I went silent. Sometimes that was best. He stopped soon after. No fun to hit when the bitch won’t scream. I stumbled out of the car, smoothed my skirt back, took off my shoes, walked barefoot two blocks and went into McDonalds. I didn’t know how bad I looked. Didn’t matter really. I just went to the bathroom, pulled all the paper towels I could out of the dirty metal box, ran the water from ice cold to tepid and washed off the blood. I took a dollar out of one of my rolled down white lace socks and walked out the bathroom to the counter.
“What the fuck?” the server asked.
“Small coke please,” I uttered.
The first gulp burned, made me feel alive again. In a few minutes, I turned around and went right back out to the street. I made good money that night. Even tricks feel bad for a bloody face.
One night an older Black man told me I was beautiful and bought me a big hamburger, dripping with toppings. It wasn’t typical fast food and that mattered somehow. We sat on a bus stop bench and he watched me eat the burger, wiping the mayonnaise and ketchup from my chin as I chewed. “You want to go home with me?” He asked. “Yes,” I said. And meant it.
But on the way to his house, he said he had to make a stop. I started to feel nervous but he’d bought me the burger. I owed him. He drove me out of Oakland, deep into Richmond, to a dingy grey house on a corner with a dirt yard, a chain link fence and no dog. Pulling up, he said, “This is my cousins place. Come on.”
I followed him, smiling when he introduced me. His sister didn’t smile back. She just looked at him with a smirk. There were three other guys there; at a table in the middle of what must be the living room, weighing dope and bagging it up. He pushed me to the table, pulling up a half broken fold up chair and thrusting me into it. I sat while they talked, quiet as they laughed and joked. Somebody rolled a joint. They started to smoke and I started to relax a little. Just a party. Cool. Cards came out and a bottle of gin, the sister came and sat on one of the guys lap, and I might have even smiled once.
It wasn’t until after they had been smoking and laughing and slamming spades on the table that I noticed I was feeling really fuzzy, not high, more like I was in a tunnel. The sister was now on the floor by the front window. She kept looking out the glass and saying, “Shhh, they’re coming.” At first, the men ran to the window, looking for cops. But then, they just cackled, hitting each other, saying, “She’s trippin’.”
The guy who bought the hamburger turned to me and smiled. He looked different now, his front right tooth was gone, and his nose had an ugly hook on it. The taste of the hamburger seemed really far away now. He leaned in, “You ever smoke crack before?” Shit, I thought. No matter what, hold it together.
Where was I?
Think. What were the street names?
What was the name of the store caddy corner from the house?
What the fuck kind of car was that?
What was his name? Kurt?
Just let it go. Relax. Trust. I’d be okay. I was always okay.
Whenever I was Felicia.
I know I’m pregnant. I’m so happy. I cup my breasts in the bathroom mirror and lay my hand on my stomach. I imagine I can feel heat. This baby is mine. No one will take it from me. No matter what. I will run if I have to.
Last time, I had no choice. The nuns at the San Leandro group home, The Bridge Home, a Catholic home for troubled girls (who mostly weren’t Catholic) told me I was ruining my life. One of them made the appointment, I don’t think it was Sister Gerarda, the one who started the group home through the Oakland Diocese, but it was her who shook her head and said, “Why Michelle? Why would you do this to yourself?” I don’t think she had any idea how delinquent we would all be when she started the home. I think she thought we would just be sad and grateful. Instead, we were always smoking out of the windows, staying up all night, flirting with the guys at the Chevron station down the hill, taking the bus from 164th down to East 14th and transferring to the Number 1 to Bayfair Bart. From there it was on to Fruitvale, the 51A from the Bart station to the houses of boys we knew, bad boys who had guns in the closet and weed to smoke. We laughed at Sister Gerarda when she sighed and said, “You can have decent lives. Let us help you.” She had no idea what kind of life we wanted. Decent? Too late.
Sister Rachel drove. She was the youngest nun at the home, and I think she kind of liked us. Maybe more than she was supposed to. She would sit in the common room and listen to us talk about boys and school and bad parents. She laughed with us sometimes. But, that day, she waited in the car. After, she helped me deal with the cramps and light-headed feeling. Another nun checked on me at night. I remember thinking they were taking turns so that no one was culpable. I mean, wasn’t abortion like a sin or something? Should they be organizing the whole thing? Insisting I do it? I was thirteen. Were they trying to do the lesser of the evils?
After I got busted, Kurt came to visit – just once. He took the Bart train from Richmond to Hayward and then the bus down A street to Kennedy Park. I met him by the merry go round. He looked so much older in the afternoon light with the pastel colored ponies rushing by to piano music. The gapping hole where his front teeth used to be made me feel sick when he smiled and his skin looked dry and saggy. He looked every day of his thirty-five years next to my fourteen. He gazed at me like he was reuniting with his future. I was wearing a light blue sweat suit and white Reebok tennis shoes. My sweat jacket was zipped down just enough to show a white lace bra. Kurt had told me to dress for easy access – I did as he said.
We walked around the park, watched the petting zoo animals through the gate but didn’t have a quarter to feed them. Kurt talked about me coming home with him but I just shrugged. I told him I couldn’t run away yet, that Jean was nice, and that I kinda liked school. But, when he leaned over and whispered, “Let’s go behind those bushes,” I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t want to, really, but I didn’t know how to say no either.
“Come on,” I said, and pulled him behind the big bush on the side of the baseball field at the back of the park. He didn’t want me to get completely undressed. He said, “You know, nobody would get it, me being with you so young and shit.” So, he ripped a big hole in my sweats, right between my legs. I just got the sweat suit. I was kind of sad about the hole.
When he was done, we crawled out from the bushes and sat on the grass. “I got to get on my way, it’s a long way back to Richmond. You sure you don’t want to come? It’ll be fun.”
“Nah,” I said. “Not yet. I will though.”
“Cool. See ya babe.” He walked away, leaving me sitting in the grass. I waited until I couldn’t see him anymore and then got up to walk home. Jean knew something was wrong when I walked in, I could tell by how she stopped rocking the screaming drug addicted baby in her arm and looked at me. But I just walked straight to the bathroom, took off the sweat suit and got in the shower. I was pissed I had to throw out the pants. The light blue was so cute with the white Reebok.
My new foster mother, Jean, helped me enroll at Bohannon, the continuation school in San Lorenzo – I made it most days. The hours were better than regular high school at 8:30-1:30 and I liked the English teacher. The typing teacher had super curly extra blonde hair and long fake red nails. She told us that she met Martin Sheen once and he asked her to come in his limo for a ride. She said she declined but she always smiled when she said it. I think she went but couldn’t share the rest of the story. We had art at school too, etching on glass. I had mirrors all over my half of my new room now – clear squares with round designs flowing throughout, one with roses; another with daisies. My face reflected back at me with flowers across my cheeks, swirly lines around my eyes.
Getting up in the morning for school, my stomach churns with bile. I swallow it down, scarf my apple cinnamon instant oatmeal and promptly run to the bathroom to throw it all up. I’ve only been here for four months. Running away from the Bridge Home ended in Richmond, with no teeth Kurt, and too much time on the street. I turned fourteen in a three-room house by the railroad tracks with no running water. We had to pour a bucket of water in the toilet to flush. I was always bleeding. It wasn’t like a period, more like a remnant left behind. It had been going on since the abortion. But, it stopped when I started feeling like throwing up all the time again. I knew.
When I got to this latest foster home, I figured I would hang out for a couple of days, get ahold of some homegirls, plan an escape. There was no way I was staying. I mean, Hayward? It was hotter than Oakland and dusty, it smelled like oil and dirty shoes. There were white people everywhere here, and Mexicans, okay, but no Black people. I felt so out of place. When I came in, my blond hair pulled back in a braid, an attempt at baby hairs greased down with Vaseline and my pink lips outlined in brown liner, the foster father groaned a little. He didn’t think I noticed. But the mom, Jean, she was something, maybe. She seemed okay. She smiled at me, shook the social workers hand, lit a long brown More cigarette.
“Welcome.” She said. “You can put your stuff in the back room on the left. You’re sharing with Crystal. She’ll be home from school in a while.”
I walked down a short hallway with dirty used to be light brown carpet. There were pictures lining the walls, kids and babies, teenagers and a weird picture of two dogs posed in red plaid sweaters– schnauzer’s I think. The room wasn’t bad. Two twin beds, one on each wall, a shelf ran the wall alongside of each. One bed was stripped with an empty shelf, figured that was mine. There was a little space on the floor, not much, but room to walk. And a small closet with one rod was split in half. I shoved my backpack into an empty spot on the floor and shut the closet door. Sitting on the bed, I thought, “I am so outta here.” I wondered what Kurt was doing. Probably playing cards at his sisters or out on the stroll. I wondered if he missed me. Was he looking for me?
I mean, I’m sure he heard what happened. I was stupid for trying to work a real job – selling magazine subscription was bullshit anyway. We drove around in a van to nicer neighborhoods, walked all day, begging at half open doors. And the guy who drove the van was always trying to get me alone. We made our once, before the other girls got back, but when they loaded up, they know. They talked shit about me the whole ride back to Richmond. They kept asking me how old I was. None of them believed I was eighteen.
Giving the fake social security number wasn’t a big deal, but I don’t know how I thought I would cash that check. Still, I should’ve known. I sat in the lobby of the ten-minute check-cashing place too long. Other people were coming and going. But the people behind the window kept whispering and pointing at me. Why did I just sit there?
When the cops came in, I knew.
“What’s your name?” The cop leaned down to ask. Another one was standing by the door, talking into a shoulder radio, “We got her.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’d I do?”
“I already gave it to them. I just need to cash a check from work.”
“I think we both know that the name you gave isn’t your name. Felicia Marquita Grey? You don’t look like a Marquita to me. Felicia maybe, but not Marquita. Let’s go.”
Shit, I thought. Busted. I really wished I wore my favorite grey sweatshirt instead of this frilly fucking half shirt. Now I would never see that sweatshirt again. I always carried my backpack with underwear, my favorite book “The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou,” pink lip gloss, brown liner, a tiny teddy bear shoved in the bottom so no one could see it, and usually, my sweatshirt. Damn it.
I met Lee on the bus to Oakland a week after Kurt’s visit. It was a Saturday and I told Jean I would be home by curfew. She never asked where I was going and I liked the sense of freedom. It was nice to just go where I wanted on the bus. As long as I was home on time, no problem. I had been late a few times, but I snuck in my window and I thought Jean didn’t know, she didn’t say anything anyway.
I was headed to 98th and Macarthur, to my friend Teeny’s house. I met her when I was on the street and she was cool, we could hang out all day, just laughing about stupid shit. Teeny was just that, tiny. She was about five feet tall, skinny as hell, light skinned with green eyes and mean as hell. She might have been small but nobody fucked with her. There was some story about her smashing a girls head into the concrete. It must have been bad because everybody still talked about it. Teeny had been in juvey a long time because of it, but she didn’t say much about what happened, just, “Bitch got what was coming to her.” All I knew was that when I was with Teeny and her family, nobody fucked with me either. And that was rare. A teenage white girl with wanna be looks and a good ass was ripe for the picking on a ghetto Oakland street.
Sitting on the bus on the way to Teeny’s, I was trying to look cute – tight jeans, my white Reebok, and a bright pink tank top that said, “Precious.”
“Are you?” he asked.
“What?” I turned to the black guy behind me on the bus.
“Precious?” he smiled.
“If you want me to be” I replied. The game stayed the same even when the context changed.
He smiled at me and moved seats to be across the aisle from me.
“What’s your name?”
“Shell. What’s yours?”
“Lee. You going to the mall?”
“Yep” I answered. “But I’m not staying at Eastmont. Just changing buses. Headed to a friends.”
“This a girl or a boy “friend?”” he asked.
“Girl. You wanna come?”
He looked at me. I stared right back. He was cute. Dark complexion, deep brown eyes, thick arms like he worked out a little, kinda hard looking. Just my type.
“Cool” he said.
Lee was twenty-one, and didn’t care that I was only fourteen. He said I acted older and age was just a number anyway. Kurt used to say the same thing.
We kicked it at Teeny’s house all day, smoking and drinking, listening to music and playing cards, flirting like mad. He rode the bus with me to Bart and made sure I got the last train to Hayward late that night. I gave him my number to call me and I knew he would. I got home just a little late. Jean was up reading one of her paperback mysteries in the living room. “Okay now, don’t push it,” she said when I walked in. But she was smiling a little.
“You look happy.”
“I am,” I said. I met a boy.
“Mmm, hmm. Be careful.”
“I will, mom.”
I smiled as I walked to my room. I called her mom and she didn’t flinch. She smiled at me when I said it, blew out a little ring of smoke from her cigarette. I pushed in my room door and saw Crystal curled up on her bed asleep. I flicked on the tiny lamp above my bed and smiled at myself in the etched mirrors on the wall. The swirls formed a heart around my face.
At Bohannon, there were three of us pregnant at the same time. Two of us were named Michelle. When other students gossiped, they had to say “Black Michelle” or “White Michelle” to keep the story straight. The other Michelle was dating a black guy outside of school like me, but the rumor was that she had messed around with this white guy at school, Mike. They were always whispering to each other. There was some big deal about her being pregnant if it was by him, his parents would freak out or something. So, she told everybody she was pregnant by her black boyfriend. The gossip about her and her baby went on until her baby was born, a beautiful little boy, so light skinned he was white. She broke up with her black boyfriend after the birth and started holding hands with Mike during breaks in between classes. But they never did tell his parents, at least that year.
The gossip about me was that I was a foster kid. Nobody cared that I was dating an older black guy. They were more interested in my past. I didn’t say much, but that made the stories more fun. At one point I had been a ho since I was ten, a homeless orphan or some shit. Other times, they would say I must have done something really bad to just be abandoned by my family. Sometimes they said I was a drug addict or had been in juvey. Nobody knew the real story. I had been a hooker, but only for a little while, I had been in the cottage over and over but not juvey (okay, jail twice but only because I lied and they didn’t know I was a minor for a few hours, then they sent me back to the cottage), I did drugs but never got hooked (they just were never my thing), I wasn’t bad, just abused and abandoned. Somehow, the truth seemed worse than the rumors.
Erika was pregnant too – she was older than me and she was a senior at the continuation school. She wore really nice clothes and said her boyfriend was older and had money. She even drove her own car. I was kind of infatuated with her. She was so beautiful – the color of coffee with light cream, green eyed, and aside from her perfect baby sized belly, her body was incredible. She was always bringing fresh fruit to school. Right in the middle of English she would pull a big slice of watermelon out of her backpack. It seemed expertly wrapped, and she always took her time peeling off the saran wrap – she would sigh as she bit in. Once there was a perfectly ripe peach, dripping ever so slightly down her chin as she chewed.
When we were offered extra credit to come in and watch the Challenger mission, she brought a full basket of strawberries. They looked fresh out of the field, and it was January. She was nearly at the end of her pregnancy; I was newly showing at three months. I watched her bite into the plump red berries as the space shuttle exploded with the teacher on board. When we all started crying, part of me was sobbing at the thought of those berries. I wanted fresh strawberries for my baby too. We all cut early that day, went home, took naps or, for those of us not using, smoked a joint. It was all so sad. I put a piece of bologna and sliced cheese on a piece of white bread and nuked it in the microwave for 40 seconds, my typical after school snack. I was irritable and when Jean asked me if I was sad about the accident we all witnessed and shrugged and said bitterly, “Why don’t we ever have fruit here?”
She looked at me for a minute and then replied, “Fruit for ten people is expensive, it gets eaten too fast. Maybe in the summer.” I stomped off to my room. She left me alone for the afternoon.
The next morning, Jean handed me an orange and said we should talk later.
Later, she tells me to come with her for a ride to 7-11. We drive in silence. She pulls the truck to a stop in the convenience store stall, turns off the ignition and turns to me. “You’re pregnant, right?” She says.
I look down, “Um, yes.” I reply.
“Oh, Michelle, you are so smart. Why? I’ll go with you to the abortion.”
I look at her, this woman I love so much, the first “mother” I think has ever truly understood me. The only foster parent that has ever believed my very smart, manipulative mother is truly crazy. I look at her and simply say, “no.”
Shell Feijo is a former foster kid from the streets of Northern California. She lives in Iowa and teaches writing and working class literature at Kirkwood Community College. Her publications have appeared in Utne, Hip Mama Magazine, The Manifest Station and the edited collection Without a Net: The Female Experience Growing Up Working Class, among others. She can be found on Facebook posting pictures of coffee, discussing witchery and liberal politics, and obsessing about her next tattoo.