Why you should care
Because if large organizations can’t handle small problems, how are they going to handle teens in foster care?
The group home is where I listen to Pink Floyd: The Wall for the first time. There are 10 of us. Two teenage girls have their own room, while the rest of us younger girls share the room next door with its four bunk beds.
The teenagers don’t usually talk to us, except to bum cigarettes or to laugh at us for “not knowing shit.” They dress in black with torn jeans and ’80s hair. They only want to listen to bands with ’80s hair on MTV. They’ll mess up our game of Skip-Bo if we don’t let them control the TV. Nancy has the big black hair; Susan has the teased-up blond. Their laughter is mean and screechy, like metal eating another piece of metal.
I’m new, so I keep quiet and study them warily. I’ve been in the foster care system for a few months, ever since my mom bruised up my face and kicked me out. Mostly I try to stay out of everybody’s way, especially the teenagers’.
There were teenagers around where my mom lived. They’d hunt us younger kids from carport to carport, and if they caught us, they threw us in the dumpsters. So I keep my distance from Nancy and Susan, just in case they also want to throw me somewhere unpleasant.
For all I know, Nancy is in there waiting to shiv me with a sharpened toothbrush.
One day it’s just Nancy and me down in the basement where us foster kids live. I’ve been giving her a wide berth, but she flits around me like I’m a power source that she can’t resist. Finally, she says, “Hey, kid, over here,” and motions for me to follow her into her room. I’ve watched Susan and Nancy work magic with their “don’t fuck with me” faces, and I do my best now to imitate the angry eyes, the “whatever, man” frown. I saunter toward her room, not too slow, but not too fast either.
For all I know, Nancy is in there waiting to shiv me with a sharpened, unsanctioned toothbrush.
Nancy and Susan’s room is smaller than ours and finished in white brick. A dumpy dresser with a boom box on top of it sits against one wall, a flimsy bunk bed against another. Nancy waves me toward the bottom bunk. “Here,” Nancy says, pulling back a ratty blanket. “Look.” She points at a wet stain on the sheet. “It’s cum.” She waits for my response, head cocked, coal-lined eyes fixed on mine. I sense a “make it or break it” moment.
“Wow,” I say, dead serious. “Impressive.”
Nancy throws her head back and cackles. “We had two dudes here last night, and nobody knows!” She struts over to the boom box and turns it on. Crude rap lyrics tumble out.
“Have you heard 2 Live Crew yet? This shit’s nasty.” She jumps around the room, shouting lyrics. I listen, quiet, my face turning red. The lyrics are disgusting. So disgusting they’re funny. I giggle, then laugh and after a few minutes, I’m yelling just as loud as Nancy.
Me: Suck my cock and I’ll eat yer pus-sy!
Nancy: Eat my pussy! Eat, eat my pus-sy!
When the tape has finished playing, Nancy looks me over. She flings a Metallica T-shirt from the bedpost to my chest.
“Here,” she says, “wear it.”
She picks up an opened pack of Marlboros from the dresser. Places it in my hand. Appraises me.
“Smoke these.” Pauses. “And listen to this.” She thrusts a cassette tape at me, smiles at her own generosity. “Now get out.” She pushes me into the hall and slams the door. Just like that, I’m banned again.
Late that night, when everyone else is asleep, I pull out the lighter and ashtray the younger girls use to secretly smoke in the house and place them on my bed. I rummage through my dresser drawer until I find my Walkman. Back on my bed, I pull out the cassette tape and study the cover. Pink Floyd: The Wall is splashed like blood across a white brick wall. I put the cassette in the Walkman and place the earphones against my ears.
I expertly light a cigarette — I’ve seen my mom do it millions of times — and inhale. When my eyes stop watering, and I’ve mostly stopped coughing, I hear the first faint lines of a pained, angry voice surmising the next decade of my life:
“So ya, thought ya, might like to go to the show.
To feel the warm thrill of confusion, that space cadet glow.”
It would be chaos. There would be blood, and drugs, and loss. But for now I just stare at the springs popping out of the top bunk.
Tomorrow I’ll practice my laugh. I’ll make sure it sounds like metal eating metal.