“Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.” – Variation of a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien
Summer is winding down. This is the time of year when people move in and out of our neighborhoods in this college town. Overnight, we go from sleepy little community where everyone basically knows everyone else to crazy party town: football and fantasy and drunken young people. Mostly, I pay little attention. I’ve lived here forever—I’m used to the overnight change. (I was a student here. My children were born here. This is my home.)
There are a few rental houses on the street where I live. Sometimes they end up rented to students who attend the university, who cram unknown numbers into their three-bedroom homes and throw crazy parties on Friday and Saturday nights. (I married my ex-husband here. My ex-husband threw the best parties—our home was Party Central, the place people came after the bars closed.) So when the house across the street becomes available, I’m happy that an older couple moves in. No doubt, they will be quiet and respectful. I wave to the couple as they unpack, a plump blonde woman, and her dark-haired, dark-eyed partner. They do not wave back. They have two teenage girls. The girls are pretty and young and I worry that they might be a little wild. (I was a little wild—came here to go to college, and went a little crazy, away from home for the first time in my life, away from the responsibilities of being the eldest in a house full of kids.)
The older of the two girls comes to visit one day when I’m playing with my toddler grandson, Jackson. (My daughter, Jessica, Jackson’s mother, has begun to ask me about the father she never knew.) The new neighbor is very friendly, says her name is Starla. She picks up Jackson and talks to him, and he laughs. She is delighted. We talk for a while and I tell her I’m a writer and work from home. She asks if I’ll take a look at her poetry, and I say I’d be honored. As a published poet myself, I like to encourage young people to write. Most of them seem to consider poetry a dogged duty they must survive. (Wrote a million poems when I first came to this town. Wrote a million to/about my ex, the wild man. Burned them when we separated. I love fire.)
Starla’s poems are difficult and shocking but impressively written. She’s a kid, but it’s clear that she knows things a 14 year old should not know. She writes about cutting and being trapped in a mental health facility and loneliness so deep it seems like bone loss. She writes about the suicide of a cousin, but I’m concerned that maybe she is projecting feelings she herself has. I try to question her about whether she’s depressed, but she laughs off my concerns. Everything is fine. Except for her mom’s boyfriend. They fight a lot, she says.
When she leaves, she asks me if I’ll read her full notebook and tell her what I think. She’s an excellent writer, even though the poems are powerful and frightening. How can someone so cheerful write such deadly sad poems?
A few days later I meet her younger sister, Katy. She tells me that her mom and the boyfriend are fighting again. He broke the television with his fist. (My ex-husband once threw a brick in our living room at a male friend who was being too nice to me.) Like her sister, Katy has this amazing sunny demeanor, a blonde smiling happiness, even as she’s telling me how he punched the TV. In between her conversation with me, she texts her own boyfriend. Sometimes, she stops in the middle of what she’s saying to me to tap into the phone. When it buzzes in reply, she looks at it and laughs hysterically. “My boyfriend is so funny,” she says. (My ex could always make me laugh. For one so serious as I was back then, this was fearsome seduction)
“Did you say you were 12?” I ask, surprised. I didn’t have a real boyfriend till I was 17. But then, I was a slow starter. Katy nods, holds up a finger to silence me, types in something to the boyfriend.
“I’ve got to go,” she says suddenly. Her mother’s car has pulled into the driveway across the street. Katy rushes out to meet her. They appear to be arguing, their hands waving as they go into the house. I shouldn’t be watching. I turn away.
Later, the older sister, Starla, drops by and tells me she’s having a birthday party the following day and that she’d like me to come by and bring my grandson. “’Cause he’s so cute.”
The next day, I carry Jackson across the street to join the party. The house is nicely decorated, and everything is clean. But there are boys and girls who range in age from 12 to 16 and no adults are around. I see cars in the driveway, so I assume the mother is home. (On my daughter’s first birthday, my ex-husband went out to get firewood and didn’t come home for days). I present my gift, a small decorated journal where Starla can write her poems and keep them in her backpack. School is starting in two weeks, so I give both girls a big package of colored pens to split. I hang around a while, waiting to see if the mother will come out and introduce herself, but she doesn’t.
I don’t see the girls for a couple of days. Then late one night, they knock on the door in a panic. They claim heard someone is trying to break into their house. Their mother is working the night shift as a nurse at a local hospital and they are alone. (When you have children, you must develop protective instincts. If need be, you must transform from a squawky little bird to a dragon.) Mom’s boyfriend has moved out. They fear he may be trying to break in. “He cheated on my mom,” says Starla. “And she threw him out. But his stuff is all still there.” Frustrated that the girls have been left alone with so much drama in their lives, my anger rises. I’ll go check out the darkness that surrounds their house.
My husband is a big man. I enlist his aid, tell the girls to wait in our house, and we skulk across the street to look for the potential intruder. We both agree that the girls are probably imagining things. They probably don’t know how safe this neighborhood is. But there are fifty thousand new students in this town—who knows, someone might be trying to break in.
Behind their house, we thrash around in the bushes, check the storage shed, look along the fence, examine all the windows and check the porch. (I once spent the night alone with my newborn baby daughter, huddled in a bathroom, shaking as a tornado passed within a block of my home, knocking down trees and houses. Never did find out where my ex-husband was that night.) A neighbor’s cat rushes out of the yard and dashes away from us. We figure it must be the cat they heard.
We go back and tell the girls there is nothing to fear. “You’re welcome to stay here,” I say, but no, they have to go home. I tell them they can come over anytime, that we’re always available if they need help. I walk them over to their house, look around to be sure no one is inside. This time, the house is a mess, dirty dishes in the sink, clothes thrown everywhere. And they are alone, which is scary in a new town.
The next day, I tell the girls that even if I’m not home, they should feel comfortable about coming over. My husband was a high school teacher for 15 years and he is an eminently trustworthy person. I tell him that they may have reason to be afraid, that the boyfriend and the mother seemed to fight a lot, that there are uncomfortable secrets in that notebook, things a young girl shouldn’t be writing about. He reluctantly agrees to be their supporter if they need one. “I hope you’re not getting me into a big mess,” he says.
I laugh. “You can handle the boyfriend. You’re bigger than he is.”
He grins. “Not if he has a gun,” he answers. He’s a good sport. He’s used to my projects. If the girls need him, he’ll be there. He’s used to following me into the middle of swamps. He’s good in the murky waters of relationships, steady, calm.
A couple of days later, Katy comes over crying. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She tells me her mother is mad at her because she worked all night and Katy’s crying woke her up. Which made Katy cry all the more. I wonder what kind of person can’t take a few minutes to comfort a child who has just lost her first boyfriend?
I talk to Katy about the lost boy. (Lost boys. That’s what I called my ex and his careless, fun-loving friends—The Lost Boys. Like the ones in Peter Pan, who never grew up.) I tell her that she’s young and pretty, that there will be lots of boyfriends, that school is starting soon and she won’t know what to do with all the boyfriends she’ll meet. We talk about ways to forget the lowlife who dumped her. She has a new kitten that she loves very much. She’s going to go home and play with him and forget about the stupid boyfriend. She seems to be happy when she leaves. At least she’s no longer crying.
Both girls come over every once in a while to talk. They tell me about school shopping plans and last minute end-of-summer trips. I begin to hope these things will happen even as I begin to see that they probably won’t. School is getting closer and they are still talking about trips and clothes as if to reassure themselves that at any moment the plans might occur. (Our biggest fights were about what we would do for our child. “I will do anything for her,” I said. “I want to give her everything.” “Like what?” “Like what? You know, music lessons, gymnastics, bicycles, whatever she wants.” “Kids shouldn’t be given all that crap. If they want it, they should get it for themselves.”)
The mother’s boyfriend is back. I see him sitting shirtless, smoking a cigarette on their front porch. I glare at him. Can’t help myself. How could you, I think. Then I am embarrassed. What right have I to make such judgments? Who knows who is at fault in the relationship of others?
A few days later, Starla comes over late. She says she’s sick, that her stomach is so upset she can’t keep anything down and she’s having terrible pains. Do I have anything that could help her? No, I say, I don’t keep anything on hand that would help with stomach pains. I volunteer to take her to the emergency room.
She thinks about this for a moment, then says, “Okay.” I ask her to call her mother at work and tell her what’s going on. Where should I take her? Should I bring her to the hospital where her mother works? Does she have insurance? Starla starts talking to Mom, and then takes the call outside on the porch. I hear her shouting into the phone, “I didn’t tell her anything.”
Frustrated, I go out and pick up the phone. “Your daughter’s in a lot of pain,” I say. “I’ll take her to the emergency room if you’d like.”
The mother surprises me. She doesn’t want me to take Starla to the emergency room. She says, “I know my daughter.” She says this a number of times.
I say, “I’m sure you do. Your daughter says she’s in a lot of pain. Do you want me to take her to the emergency room or not?”
She snaps, “If I thought she needed to go, I’d come home and take her myself. I’ll have Sam do it when he gets off work.”
“Sam? Sam?” I say. The name of the boyfriend. The one who supposedly left, but who has now come back. I know my voice sounds shocked, but that’s because I am shocked. Is this woman seriously going to send her teenage daughter off with a man who has somehow managed to traumatize her?
Starla goes home to wait for Sam to get off work. When he’s sitting outside the next morning, smoking, my husband asks if she’s okay and he says “Fine.” She doesn’t come to my house anymore after that. I’m sure her mother told her not to visit me anymore. I interfere too much. (Before my daughter was born, I left my ex over and over but he always talked me into returning. After she was born, after he disappeared on her first birthday, I packed up and never came back.)
Two days after the stomach pain incident, I am awakened at 3 AM by hysterical screaming. My bedroom is at the back of the house and my windows are closed, but still I can hear the neighbors shrieking. From my living room, closer to the dramatic scene, I hear Katy begging her mother to come inside. Outside in the light of the street lamp, I see the mother sitting in the middle of her driveway, both legs extended at right angles to her body, shrieking and crying hysterically. Katy stands nearby, cell phone in hand. “Please mom,” she cries, “please come inside.”
Mom says, “Katy, get the fuck in the house right now.” She doesn’t stop screaming. She doesn’t stop crying. She thinks she is the dragon and that she will breathe fire and everyone will run away from her. But looking at that 12 year old’s tearful face, I’m the one breathing fire.
Nevertheless, I try to be polite. I walk up to where she sits and bend down. “What’s wrong?” I say. “Can I help you?” I don’t know this woman. I have never met her. I tried to meet her but she has gone out of her way to avoid me. Now she’s too drunk to get away.
“My boyfriend left me,” she wails. “He cheated on me, and now he’s left me.” (One day my ex left me alone with our baby and the daughter of a female friend. He didn’t come home all night and claimed he got stuck on a river in a boat. He claimed he was alone. I didn’t believe him.) “I’m all alone,” shrieks the mother of Katy and Starla.
“Mom,” Katy says, but she is looking at me as she speaks, “please, please come in the house.”
Mom stops crying long enough to shriek, “You heard me. Katy, do as I say, get the fuck in the house right now!”
“Listen,” I say, “you really should go inside. I’m afraid someone’s going to call the police.” I’m hoping that this will bring the woman to her senses, but she’s too far gone for this to matter. Drunks are like that. (My ex had three DWI’s in the last year we were together. For the third one, he spent six days in jail while I waited at home, eight months pregnant.)
She says, “He left me. He cheated on me. And I’m in my own driveway. I can do whatever the fuck I want.” She moans and rocks back and forth. She doesn’t look at me as she cries, “You don’t get it. You don’t understand anything. I’m a single parent. I’m all alone. You don’t know what I’m going through.”
“I get it,” I say. “I’m just afraid you’ll hurt yourself or hurt your daughter.”
“You don’t know me,” she shrieks. “I’d never hurt her.”
I don’t mean to say it, but it’s 3 AM and I’m tired and grouchy. “You already are,” I retort.
“You don’t know anything about this,” she shrieks at me. “Call the police if you want.”
Katy gives me a look of absolute pleading. (My ex used to come staggering home at 3 or 4 a.m., drunk out of his mind. If I was lucky, he would be alone and go to sleep soon. If I was unlucky, the Lost Boys would be with him and party all night, making it impossible for me to sleep.) “Let me help you inside,” I coax, walking towards her. I put out my hand.
She shrieks, “Just go away, you fucking bitch.”
I give Katy a sad glance and back off. I’m not afraid of crazy mom. I’ve been around more than my share of mean drunks and they do not intimidate me. And there’s no way I’m leaving until I know her daughters are safe. There’s nothing I can do here, though, so I cross the street to my own porch. But I don’t go away. I’m not going to allow her to do anything to her 12-year-old child, anything worse than she is doing already by lying in the middle of her yard screaming hysterically at 3 o’clock in the morning. (Once I got drunk and told my ex, “Now I see why you love this. I feel nothing—nothing!”) In the dark, I watch the mother argue with her young daughter. Katy knows I’m there. As she continues to try to get her mother in the house, she glances in my direction, where I sit in the dark cursing and breathing fire, waiting for this crazy woman to step out of line.
Eventually Katy gives up and goes inside and Mom sits there, legs wide, body slumped, still sobbing. Finally, she manages to get to her feet. She staggers to the house, opens the front door and starts to go in. As she does, Katy’s cat slips out and runs into the darkness. There are two old cars in the driveway and the cat disappears under one of them. The mother comes out staggering and cursing, looking for the cat.
I think about what I will say to her if we have another confrontation this evening. I want to tell her that her kids are already so messed up they desperately need help. I want to shriek back at her the way she was shrieking at me. But what’s the point?
The mother staggers from place to place. She can’t stand up straight. She’s close to passing out. She’s cursing the cat and cursing the dark and cursing the boyfriend by name. I know if she finds the cat, she will hurt it. I know that Katy has given up, and is crying in bed. She doesn’t know the cat is lost or she would be outside looking for it.
Sometimes connections seem so random. Who knows why people get involved in each other’s lives? Maybe it’s as simple as asking someone to read your poems. The mother keeps looking over at me, sitting in the dark on my front porch. I know why I am sitting here. I know why I’m interfering. I know why I want her to straighten up—I am looking at what I could have become if I hadn’t left my ex-husband.
Eventually, the mother gives up on the cat. Crying, she staggers back into the house, slams the door behind her. (I knew if I stayed, my child would live a horrible life, a life of drunken battles and useless dreams. The day after her first birthday, I packed our meager possessions and left my ex-husband forever. Dragons can be born at any time.)
I sit in the dark on my porch and listen to see if the mother is inside screaming at her kids, but there is only silence. (If I hadn’t left, my children would have been like these poor, damaged teens across the street, shining with their attempts to be bright and carefree and not get sucked into the morass of tragedy that surrounds their lives.)
I look towards the cars where the cat ran. There the cat sits, just under the bumper of the car, staring back at me in the darkness like a ghost. I can almost read the expression on his face. See, this is how you avoid conflict. Stay out of the way. He glows like the ghost of my past in the light from the streetlamp, reveling in the silence. I know I should go inside my own peaceful, quiet home. But instead, I turn on my front porch light and sit there waiting, just in case I’m needed later.