“You’re gonna die!” Grandma yells. “It’s too dangerous! Two girls, alone on the road?!” She gets upset often these days. “Why?! Why do you have to go?!”
“We’re going to see so many incredible things.” I try to reassure her. “A cross-country road trip, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!”
“Yeah, I took a road trip to California. I came back with five kids! Why can’t you just watch TV like everyone else?…Ariana! Why?! Ariana! Ariana! Please.” She pleads.
I planned this trip for months. I booked every hotel and campsite along the way months in advance, but I waited until the last minute to pack everything I owned into my car. Eventually, the car filled up, and I had to decide what I had to leave behind, which it turns out is quite mental breakdown provoking at two in the morning when you have to leave at five in the morning to keep your itinerary.
We left as dawn broke and drove all day through western New York and Ohio. Our first stop was Chicago, an enchanting city, filled with artists and creatives. We stopped for Chicago style pizza. While we were waiting, this good-looking gentleman said hi to me. I looked around to see who he was talking to, and after I realized it was me, I pretended I didn’t hear him. I didn’t know what else to do, I was not used to strangers small talking with me. We’re not in New York anymore, I thought.
It was late when we left Chicago, the trains were sneakily trying to hum us to sleep. We still had a couple hundred miles before we got to our hotel. I guess I figured we would make better time. I forgot that we both drink a gallon of water a day, and didn’t account for neither of us sleeping the night before. We took caffeine pills, but they didn’t help.
I have serious trust issues and a paranoia of people falling asleep while driving. My ex would literally be snoring while driving my car, perfectly in the lines I might add! I’d yell “Wake up!” He’d open his eyes and say “I wasn’t sleeping!” I was hanging over the edge of my seat, staring at Ari. She goes, “What are you doing? Stop looking at me like that! You’re freaking me out! I’m fine!”
Eventually, we gave up and got a hotel still about two hours from the hotel I had already booked. We did get a nice suite for cheap since it was the only thing available. We awoke to the smell of hay somewhere in Wisconsin. We were behind schedule so we were now in rush mode, which we were already in being New Yorkers.
We drove what felt like a week itself through nothing but corn, cows, windmills, and more corn. The panic kicked in somehwere around Minesota. My mind raced around in circles, like a tornado it picked up every negative thought and bounced it around my head. What the fuck did I just do? I quit my jobs. I left my home, my family, my friends. I’m homeless. I’m unemployed. I’m fucked. Miles and miles of nothing. All that unused space made me nervous. The road kept going on forever and nothing ever changed! The road never turned, it just kept on going, straight into forever. I could see a storm forming hundreds of miles ahead, it gave us hours to anticipate it. What would it be like when we got there? Would we make it out the other end of that storm? …Or get lost in the tornado of our minds?
Ari loved it, said it was her favorite state. Ari and I have always been opposites in a lot of ways, but we also have a lot in common. A mutual friend, Nikki, introduced us when she was 10 and I was 12. All three of us had tragic childhoods in different ways. Ari and I never met our dads, and Nikki’s dad sexually abused her. We all shared stories of CPS and police at our houses every other week.
All three of us lacked supervision. We would always sneak out, and get high and drunk. Ari never drank or got high, but never judged us. She promised her mother, who passed away when Ari was only 13, that she would never do drugs, and she kept her promise. I’m sure it was especially hard since so it seemed everyone she looked up to was an addict. Even as a teenager she upheld a strong moral code, and displayed extreme discipline. I always admired her for that.
After her mother passed away, she lived with her stepdad, who didn’t know how to be an authority figure, her older brother, who never left his room, her older sister, who was never home, and her two younger sisters, who argued constantly. A few years later, when Ari and her two younger sisters moved in with their grandmother, Ari was left to move a five-bedroom house alone. In her brother’s room, she found mounds of clothes, dishes, and when she opened a perfume box, she found over a dozen used heroin needles.
Living with Grandma had its own set of challenges, but Ari appreciated the little comforts Grandma did provide, like food on the table every night. Her stepfather spent his money supporting Ari’s Godmother’s heroin addiction.
Ari and I had weird things in common like our mothers had the same first and middle name, Sarah Elizabeth, and they were both nurses. Whenever I called Ari, Grandma became upset.
“Who is this?”
“Grandma, it’s Vera, is Ari home?”
“Who is this?! This is not funny! Why does it say Sarah Elizabeth? You’re not my daughter! My daughter’s dead! This is a nasty trick! Who is this!?”
Sometimes she wouldn’t answer and when Grandma called back, my mom would answer. The first time, my mom had no idea who it was and was very confused why a strange woman had called her just to yell at her. My mom was so sad when I told her it was Grandma, because the two of them had worked together for many years.
Once I came to pick Ari up, to get out of the house for a bit. Ari came outside and ran into my car, like she had just finished a heist and I was the getaway driver. I thought maybe she was running to escape the cold weather, but then Grandma came out after her, naked, screaming, “Ariana! Ariana! Get back here! You can’t leave me!” Her little sister came outside and tried to cover their grandma up with a towel.
By the age of 15, Ari was not only raising her two younger sisters but taking care of her grandmother as well. She cooked, cleaned, and tried to keep the girls in line and Grandma happy. She took care of everyone who was supposed to care for her, and she never complained.
Grandma had a decent amount of money, but they still struggled financially because her alcoholic son was stealing her checks. He was would pop in every now and then for food and beer, after hiding from the cops in the woods for days, and then disappear again. Ari’s uncle, aunt, and cousin lived with them for a while. One night, her uncle got so drunk he fell down. Ari and her aunt tried to sit him up, but he kept falling limp, so they left him there snoring away and went to bed. Ari woke up to her little sister and aunt panicking and crying, “He’s not breathing!” They tried to keep Grandma in her room and not tell her what was going on, but she barged past them and found her youngest son lying dead on the kitchen floor.
I watched as that little girl, selflessly surrendered her youth. We both grew up too fast. Even though she was younger than me, she became a woman before me. That girl was tough as nails, let me tell you. She put on a cold front, she didn’t let a lot of people in, but should she find you worthy, she shall be constant and faithful until you both fucking die. When no one, not even my own family, was there for me, she was. When I fucked up, she let me know, but she never left my side. That is one loyal bitch. She always seemed more confident than me. She was never afraid to speak her mind or be herself. As you may know, people don’t always like it when you are honest and true to yourself.
My ex never liked her. He’d say she was loud, obnoxious, and liked to gossip. He’d talk shit about all of her friends, how they were all dirtbags who lived in trailers. He’d call her trashy because of her tattoos and the “bitch” bumper sticker that was on her car when she was 17. One time she came over and there were some crumbs left where she was eating, so he started calling her a slob. I’d get so offended when he’d talk about her like that.
“You don’t even know her! She’s one of the best people I know! How can you judge someone based on such superficial, exterior shit?”
He’d say, “Why are you so mad, it’s not like I’m talking about you?”
“One, because she’s my best friend. One of my only friends. Two, you kind of are talking about me! I have tattoos, I’m a messy eater! I lived in a trailer! And I had a similar upbringing to her, when you call her trash, you’re calling me trash too, just like your mother.” His mother screamed at me, “Get out of my house! You’re fucking trash! White trash!” when we told her we were moving in together. She’s a real classy woman.
Everyone was getting under my skin with these labels. White trash. Trailer trash. Was I branded these labels at birth, and must wear them until death?
I stopped talking to Ari for a year because I wanted to dissociate from everyone who reminded me of who I was and where I came from. I told myself I was ashamed of her when really I was ashamed of myself but too cowardly to face it. I convinced myself it didn’t happen, I was cured, that I wasn’t me, that I cleared the browsing history of my body, that I’d been born again as someone else, someone luckier. I thought if I just show up and play the part, pretend I’m poised and elegant. If I just douse myself with education and culture, they won’t notice the imposter in the room. But they always notice. The damage has been done, it’s hanging off my shoulders, busting through the seams of my dress. My trauma shines like a diamond at a crowded dinner party. You can hear it when I open my mouth, the way my voice trembles with doubt. Like hounds, they smell my fear. I don’t belong here, and everyone knows it.
I’ll never be like them, but I’m not total trash either. I am something entirely different, I am me. Ari is who she is. Take us or leave us, make no difference to us. At least for the time being, we get to decide who we want to be, no matter how much society tries to predetermine our destinies.
I felt bad instantly, my self-loathing had hurt someone else besides myself, someone who’s never done me wrong. It took me several months to swallow my pride and apologize. When I finally did, she acted like she wasn’t even phased and we took up right where we left off, as best friends do.
Ari was still taking care of the girls and Grandma, only now she was in another demanding relationship with a man, working, and studying criminal justice on top of it. Imagine you have a friend over your house, and when she walks in your grandmother is sitting there and suddenly starts screaming at you, or just calls your friend a whore.
Grandma only got worse over the years. She was able to do less and less for herself as her pain got worse. She relied on Ari for everything but treated her like the devil. If you’ve ever taken care of the elderly or worked with someone who has Alzheimer’s, you know this dynamic is common. It’s also not unusual that she would be screaming in agony for Ari to come help her because she can’t move one minute, and chasing her around the house with a broom the next.
Once she got in one of her moods, nothing could stop her. She would scream at the girls for hours. She would say horrible things to them, especially Ari. She would get in their faces, antagonizing them, “Come on, you piece of shit, hit me! I’ll call the cops on you!” She would tell Ari that no one liked her, and blame her for the death of her uncle.
They would hide from her in their rooms and Grandma would bang and kick the door until it opened. Another thing Ari and I had in common, there were always broken doors in our homes. If you’ve ever lived with an abuser, you can probably remember the custom doors in your homes too. You can imagine having to force them open because of the custom broken hinges. They’re decorated with personalized kicking holes. Sometimes they’re missing entirely because someone decided to rip it off and set it on fire.
Ari was not allowed to have a life independent of Grandma, Grandma needed her all of the time. The rare times I did see her, I would go over and talk to Grandma too. She’d be super pleasant with me, until I’d say “We’ll be back soon.” Then she’d start screaming how Ari never does anything for her, how she hasn’t eaten for days (right after lunch), and list all of the things she needs right now. Before I knew it, I’d be hiding from a screaming Grandma trying to break the door down too! I’ve seen a lot of scary shit in my life, and I gotta say, Grandma on a bad day is easily in the top 10.
I watched that woman sacrifice her entire youth to take care of Grandma. Grandma gave up the freedom she had just attained after raising six kids for the rest of her life to care of her grandchildren without a second thought. Ari never doubted that she would take care of grandma as long as she possibly could. She never treated her task as a burden, though it certainly was. She just knew it was something she had to do, and she did it. Ari was 25 when it became too dangerous to keep Grandma home.
Everyone told her to do it sooner, to leave, to take care of herself. I can’t imagine what living like that for all those years does to a person, being told you’re worthless so many times that you start to believe it. I don’t know a lot of people who would do half of what she did for those girls and for Grandma.
If that selfless woman, is what you consider trashy, then I’d be honored for you to call me that. But I can think of a lot of other things to call a woman of her caliber, besides white trash.
We finally caught up with the storm, it was all the way in the hills South Dakota. All that anxiety for nothing, the storm had already passed. The remnants of this particular storm were so unique. The road was just wet enough to reflect the sun’s last rays of the day, to savor the day’s warmth a little longer. We drove up into the hills and into the sunset. This road would take us to our futures, the road to liberation.
We drove through a small mountain town, similar to the one in New York that we had left the day before. I was pumped full of caffeine and being goofy. I announced in a professional voice, “Welcome to Mount Rushmore, you’re about to have a patriotic experience which will change your life.” A few minutes later we saw a sign that said something to the same extent, and we couldn’t stop laughing.
I don’t think it was the men’s faces carved onto the mountain. It was the mountain itself and the energy it holds. It was “Grand Old Flag” pulsing through the stereo. It was the people from all over the world, from all walks of life, all together, all equal. At that moment I fell in love with America. Yes her crown has been corrupted, but her foundation stands strong. Her foundation is people like us. Two girls like us, from a small town in New York, who escaped their poor, toxic families and made it all the way to the Mount Rushmore, by ourselves. We have many obstacles ahead of us, as lower class women, but if we have a chance of reaching our potential anywhere, it is here.
“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy”-F. Scott Fitzgerald