Chapter 1: Tears on a Blue Collar
The year was 1973. At that point, the future was waiting for those working-class Americans who punched the clock every day and wanted nothing more than to get married and have kids. Things in America were changing drastically: the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, the Supreme Court put a stop to abortion bans, and, as all children of those years say, “It was a different time.”
My father had returned from the War. This had been far from his hometown of Stoneham, Massachusetts—a small town just north of Boston—where he and my mother raised a family of four—two boys and two girls. Picture perfect. He drove a simple green Chevy Impala to work every day while his wife (who didn’t drive) always managed to get a ride to work. George and Tim, their sons, as well as their eldest daughter, Catherine, were well into their teens, but the youngest, but I-Maria-, was just turning nine.
Of course, as the youngest child, I was just as feisty as I was sweet. My strong personality was almost all that I had, and this was the year I thought my life had taken a turn for the worst…
Our house must have been the smallest on the block. What others didn’t realize was that I was a young girl living in a mental institution; well, at least it seemed like that. What others called “home,” I called “trying to survive.” Times got worse over the years leading up to when I was in middle school. We never had food, clothes, or heat. Most nights, I would cry myself to sleep because I was always alone.
This was a couple years after the war, when my father became severely depressed. I used to have a backpack adorned with my name, but after some years of wear and tear, the “Maria” stitching had worn off and it now just said, “Ma.” Middle school was a time when everyone wanted to become accepted and to blend in, but all I remember is feeling like an embarrassed outcast.
Middle school students aren’t the nicest people in the world, suffice to say. I never understood why we struggled, though, because both of my parents worked 12-hour shifts almost every day. My older brothers looked after me, and my younger sister was rarely home. My mother worked in a factory as an assembly line employee. I truly never got to see her; she worked so hard for such little return.
There was one day that sticks out so far that I’ll never shake the memory. It was late at night when they took my daddy away while he was yelling and crying, lifeless in a straitjacket. I watched as his frail body got placed on the stretcher, which broke my tiny heart.
My dad was diagnosed with bipolar disease and severe psychosis, which he had been living with every day since the war. After returning home weeks later from the mental institution, things seemed back to normal. Until it happened again.
It was a nothing-special sort of night before Dad got home, but when he did, he opened the door slowly, almost as if he didn’t want to be seen. Jesus, I’ll never forget his face. He was expressionless, but I could sense that he was overwhelmed, tired, sad, angry, and confused – everything was in his blank stare. I came out of my room, which consisted of a bed, bare walls, and holes in the cracked wooden floors. I didn’t know what to think; I was home alone, and had no one to turn to for help. I picked my journal up off of my small bed, held it close to my chest, and walked up to him.
“What happened, Dad?” I asked. He looked down at me– I was frightened and just as confused and overwhelmed as he seemed.
He slowly looked away and whispered, “They laid me off… 10 years of 70-hour workweeks and they let me go.” And then, his whisper became a scream: “What are we going to do?!”
I remember hugging his sweat-drenched body tightly and telling him that it would be okay. That night at the dinner table, my whole family was home and no one could eat a bite; we were all too sad for my father. When my mother said that she would increase her hours to pay for the bills, I thought to myself just how physically impossible her idea was, but remained quiet.
Weeks passed and my father hadn’t gotten off the couch. Weeks turned into months and still my father was slipping into an even deeper depression. I remember starting 7th grade and my friends making fun of me. They’d tell me, “We saw your father walking down the street with a hood on, talking to himself and playing with his beard.”
The harassment continued, and I would cry myself to sleep every night. I came home from school one day, and saw police cars and ambulances surrounding my house. I bolted to my front door, and it was flung open like a bat out of hell. I saw a man I didn’t recognize run out of the door as if he was being chased by an army. He jumped off the porch and was immediately tackled by an officer. The man who looked up at me had lost eyes, a scruffy beard, and dirty clothes. My eyes welled up as I realized that my father was not the man he used to be.
He was so far removed from the man who had fought hard for his country, and he was no longer the happy man with a wife and loving family; he had been destroyed by life and looked as if he were possessed. What had happened to the traditional family eating around the table, with the fireplace going? What had happened to feeling warmth? I looked around at that moment and saw a home that was dirty, small, and ultimately lonely. My brother turned to me and said, “Happy birthday, Maria.”
Dad was admitted to the mental hospital exactly six months after he was laid off. After working hard for 10 years at the same company, they claimed that he was not eligible for health insurance or paid time off to cope with his mental illness. I don’t know if it was the war that broke my father or if it was the fact that his decent life was stolen from him by a pink sheet of paper. He returned home after a month of being on lithium and God-knows-what-else, and walked through the door soulless. This was not my father. As I cried on my small bed, I watched the cockroaches scatter on the floor and listened to my older siblings scream at each other. My mother was working 70 hours a week and we were still dirt-goddamn-poor.
After many hospitalizations, life at home became a little different, and easier to deal with. While I was middle school, the kids on the bus had mercilessly made fun of my father and of how poor we were. That did not happen anymore; I found out that if I faked a smile and didn’t let anyone see my emotions, they would think my life was great. I decided that I wouldn’t show anything but confidence because if I didn’t, I would probably break down. My friends didn’t know that every day I would come home from school to find my father screaming and crawling on the floor from his hallucinations. I walked into my room one day to see that all of the pictures on the walls had holes cut into them where the eyes used to be because my father had thought they were staring at him. Once nighttime hit, he was at his worst; my father would smash my door, trying to break it down. I would sit on my bed, crying and hoping for him to just go away as the hits on the door grew harder and louder.
I was always sure that the door would break down. This time, it will break, I’d think as tears ran down my face. It never did, though, and despite that my tears were real at night, I learned the art of wearing a fake smile at school to hide my nightmare of a life.
Later that year, our family could not hide anymore. My father had been taken out in a straitjacket again, while I looked outside through the crack of our only window shade. I had grown so used to tears that I didn’t even notice I was crying.
Everyone knew what was going on, but none of us were bold enough to talk about it. We couldn’t keep up the charade anymore. My father would walk the streets at midnight each time that he returned from the mental hospital with a hood over his head—every night.
Some nights, he wouldn’t even come home. He had been out of work for five years, and had ruined our humble family house. He had destroyed all of our furniture, and burned everything else in the place to ash. Now, we had nothing in our house besides our beds. At times, I wanted to go to sleep and never wake again.
My freshman year of high school was interesting. I had never had a boyfriend; I was always afraid of what he might think of my crazy father. Dad was getting worse as the year went on—more and more often he would cry himself to sleep at night, or sweat bullets and crawl on the floors while hiding from the walls. It’s difficult to see the man who was supposed to represent stability in my life literally pulling his hair out. I was so scared of my father and what I needed was an out, a new life away from this.
Freshman year ended, and, at last, it was my summer of being “sweet” sixteen. To be honest, I was surprised that I was still alive after everything that had gone on. My brothers would visit Florida a lot to get away from my father, and my sister was always out partying, leaving me alone and stuck in the house. Some nights, it was just my father and me, and I would bolt my door shut with my tiny bed shoved in front of the door.
In the midst of all this, I never stopped loving the guy. I didn’t even blame him for his disease; I just wish that it could be fixed in time.
The day was May 5, and I had my usual shift at Richardson’s, the ice cream place in town. As usual, all I could think about was another life, a completely-typical dream life, in which my husband was perfect and I had two wonderful sons, a dog, and a white picket fence.
“Hello, beautiful,” said a voice that snapped me back into reality as I gazed up. I saw a boy; he was tall with an athletic build, had dark brown eyes, and had the most amazing curly brown hair that I had ever seen. It was love at first sight, and my voice shook as I took his order.
“Mocha frappe, beautiful,” he said, with his buddies laughing right behind him. I went back to make his frappe and slightly looked over my shoulder to see his amazing eyes looking in my direction; I walked up to the counter with my heart beating so fast that I thought it was going to explode, and gave him his frappe. He took it quickly and smiled as he hopped into a car with his friends, blasting rock and roll and hanging out of the window. I fell totally and madly in love.
I didn’t see him for a couple weeks after that, and the summer was coming to an end more quickly than normal, it seemed. I spent some part of everyday thinking about the boy, wishing I would bump into him, which I did—literally.
School was only in its first week, and I was frantically putting makeup on in the girls’ room just before I saw him again. A little mirror pep talk helped me to face my peers, and when I confidently swung the door open, it stopped short with a thud. I was mortified as I looked to see who the victim was, and, sure enough, it was him—“Mocha Frappe” boy.
He turned around and smiled. His smile was stunning; I hardly noticed the huge lump on his head that I had just given him. He said, “Did I forget to pay for the frappe?”
“No,” I said, laughing at his corny joke. “I’m so sorry; I was completely not paying atten—”
“Did I ever get your name?” he interjected. I didn’t mind in the least, however; I was turning into jelly inside and it was hard to form sentences.
“Maria,” I said, as my voice cracked and I turned red with embarrassment.
“Nice to see you again, Maria. Where we headed?”
Instantly, my stomach got tight and I felt sick, but chalked it up to butterflies. He grabbed my books, stuck out his hand to let me go ahead of him, and proceeded to walk me to class. The maybe 10-foot walk from there to my math class felt like an eternity, like we were walking miles and miles into thin air—slowly—as the walls started to disappear…
Just before we parted ways, I snapped out of the spell I was under and realized that I didn’t know this boy’s name. I doubt that he would have given it to me had I not asked, but, luckily, I did.
“Clint Michaels. See you around.”
The remaining classes that day were a blur. All I could think about was Clint Michaels; Maria and Clint, Clint and Maria Michaels. I was in love, no question. I was convinced the pain was all over and that, finally, I had met my savior.
That evening after school, I jumped into bed and wrote love poems in my journal throughout the night. It allowed me to forget about my life for once; I could forget about my father being sick, forget about my mother who was never home because she worked 70 hours a week—I was finally at peace thinking about “the boy.”
The next day in school, all I could think about was seeing him; I needed to bump into him again. I remember asking my friends if they knew this “Clint Michaels.” They all gasped when I mentioned his name, and then Stacy chimed in, “Uh, yeah, how do you know Clint Michaels?”
I told them the story from the day prior and then found out just who this character was. My girlfriends thought I must have been living under a rock because Clint had a reputation around here that sounded like something out of the movies. I knew that he was cute, but they told story after story, making me feel crazier and crazier about him with every new shenanigan.
Then my heart sank, as I was overcome by a moment of clarity. Why would he go for me? The second he finds out about my situation at home and all of that, it’s going to be goodbye.
I reluctantly tried to force myself to forget about my perfect dream life with Clint, the kids, and the stupid white fence.
Weeks passed, and I found myself still looking for excuses to talk talking to my girlfriends about Clint. One day, I found myself staring at the clock, unfocused and unable to pay attention to whatever the teacher was preaching about. Finally—finally—the bell rang. I bolted out of there like I was being chased, and began the walk home.
I was kicking the rocks and thinking of never going home, thinking of, instead, just taking off and never turning back. It was a thought that I had every afternoon around this time. Then, something happened that was not as familiar. I heard a loud engine pulling up behind me, and, faintly, over the loud roar, someone called my name. I knew immediately—it was Clint.
I could barely hear anything with the noise of the motor, which, I turned around to discover, was powering his old muscle car. Can you believe this kid? 16-years-old, and I already wanted to get married and have babies when I saw him. I was thrown right back into the jar of jelly that I had become the last time we spoke. He killed the engine and hopped out to speak to me, God only knows why.
Apparently there were families out there who could afford vacations to Disney World because Clint was going there for two weeks, and we wouldn’t see each other for at least that long, which crushed me. However, I was damn good at masking my disappointment. He offered to give me a ride home and, even though my house was one minute away, I accepted without hesitation. The butterflies were getting wild in my stomach as we rode off; I was in shock that any of this was happening to me, and I gazed at him longingly as we approached my house.
“Can we just keep driving for a while?” I asked.
“Ha, sure thing, beautiful.”
This sort of thing continued for a few months, and after he got back from Florida, the two of us were together every night. It was one of the happiest times of my life, but I panicked whenever he had to bring me home. His family was affluent and got to travel, and was just… different from mine. They never seemed to fight or have any issues that were out of their control.
Clint was the youngest of his siblings, with one older brother and two older sisters, who would always call him the “wild child.” I loved that about him. If there was ever trouble in North Reading, Massachusetts, Clint Michaels was involved. Mainly, it was because of his knack for talking his way out of pretty much anything; he could make anyone turn into jelly, just like he had to me. I woke up every day thankful now; Clint had turned my trials into happiness.
It got better and better being with Clint, and, for whatever reason, all I could do was panic about losing it all. I did secretly enjoy seeing the looks of shock and jealousy when he would walk with me through the halls at school, but I didn’t know how long the dream would last.
The first time I met his family, I remember being so nervous and shy because I was a bit rusty on the whole “family life” situation, and I didn’t want his parents to worry that their son was dating a homeless vagabond or something. When it got too cold to walk through the park, Clint drove us around in an old beat-up muscle car; it was loud and had rust on the bottom, but he loved it just as much as I did. We pulled up to his house on Central Street right near the high school. It was an old but spacious house, with a huge yard full of vegetables and trails, and it seemed as if I would get lost if I wandered. Clint opened the old barn-style red door, and I remember my heart racing. I thought, What if they don’t like me? Will Clint still like me if they don’t? I almost ran back out, anxiously perspiring under my arms.
His father, Allen, approached with a beautiful smile, hugged me, and said, “Wow, Clint, this one’s a keeper,” as I blushed and felt the butterflies float away. His father didn’t look a day over 40. Allen was eating walnuts with his shirt off. He was in pretty decent shape for an older man; I could see where Clint got his figure. Out of the corner of the room, I heard, “WELL, WHO MIGHT THIS BE?” She was a shorter woman with dark Oriental eyes and a wonderful smile. She politely shook my hand and sat down with her glass of whiskey and a puzzle, and started relaxing. Clint and I then took off in his car; he had to get me back home, as it was getting late.
At my door, he kissed me and asked to come in. My heart stopped, since the day I had been dreading was here. I angrily said, “No, why would I let you in?” and ran inside. Clint looked confused and hurt.
I ran into my room, crying alone. No one was home, and I slammed my door shut. It couldn’t have been longer than two minutes, but it felt endless. I heard a gentle knock, knock. I anxiously got out of the small bed, wiped the tears from my lonely eyes, and opened the door. I slammed it shut automatically when I saw Clint, confused and looking at me. I said, “Clint, you don’t know me and my family; we shouldn’t see each other anymore.”
He answered, “I know, Maria—that doesn’t matter. You’re my everything and I don’t care what your family is… I just care about you.” He opened the door slowly, and I didn’t stop him; he walked in and smiled and kissed me.
I was so scared of him seeing me house: the pictures with holes cut into them, the carpets ripped to shreds, the empty kitchen and no food, my bedroom with nothing but a bed. He smiled and said, “I like it.” I knew that he was just trying to make me feel better, but it worked. As we made love for the very first time in his car that night, it didn’t feel like my world was sad but rather like it was filled with happiness; I was on a cloud, riding through the solar system. I felt light as a feather, and nothing else mattered—my life was complete with Clint.
1982 arrived—the year I was legally an adult. Clint, of course, was 17, but looked older. We had been together for almost three years and were inseparable. His family would call me Betty Boop because they said I had big, beautiful, dark-set brown eyes and a bubbly personality. Clint had a brother and two sisters. I tried to keep my fake smile intact whenever we were around them; I loved Clint so much and I didn’t want them to see my pain.
The past couple of years had changed my father. He was on a new drug that mellowed him down, but I wasn’t sure if I liked him better this way or if wished he was crazy again. He would kind of just sit there in his rocking chair, his legs shaking. He was quiet and when Clint would come into the room, he would almost smile; for some reason, he liked Clint. Maybe it was the fact that he knew Clint made his daughter so happy, or the fact that it was hard not to smile upon seeing Clint’s grin. My mother also enjoyed the company of Clint; he would stay over for dinner sometimes and, with the little food we had to offer, he really made us feel special with genuine compliments and cheerful conversation.
Senior year approached and I was so excited to finally graduate. I would often worry that Clint and I wouldn’t stay together because he was only a junior and had one more year of high school to go.
I think back to what I had wanted to do after school and realize that, at the time, I had never understood my true potential; I had just thought, I’m poor, how could I ever get an education? In my heart, I had always wanted to be a nurse, someone who could care for the sick, understand them, and lend ears to their hearts. I was very compassionate because I had watched my father suffer mentally for over a decade.
It still hurts to think of the days when he was dragged out of our home in a straitjacket, but life goes on and now he sits in his chair, rocking alone. Maybe one day, he would be at peace. I pray for you, Dad.
As senior year began, things were getting hot and heavy between Clint and me; I don’t think I need to explain. We were so young, everyone always said, but we didn’t listen; both of our parents were married young and had kids in their 20s. The days passed quickly and suddenly it was time for senior prom.
I called Clint later that night, hoping he would ask me to prom. He told me that he was going to prom with another woman he had been talking to, and I smashed the phone against the wall and started hysterically crying. How could this happen? What did I do wrong? We had been dating for years , and he had decided to attend the most important dance of my life with someone else. I wanted to get even with him, so I called a guy named Chuck who had always been into me. He immediately said “yes,” and I could feel my heart fill up slowly with hate: I’ll show you, Clint.
I had to look amazing, but had no money to buy the things I wanted. My good friend, Angela, said that I could borrow the extra dress her mother had gotten her “just in case.” I went over to her house on prom night and put on a ton of make-up; I needed to look the best I ever had, since I wanted to make Clint realize that he had made the biggest mistake ever. I wanted him to feel awful. Chuck arrived to pick me up in the limo; he was such a nerd, but sweet, and he showed up in a white suit and black bowtie with his thin blond hair plastered to the sides of his head. He was no Clint Michaels, but he was enough to make Clint jealous.
We arrived to prom, and it was beautiful. I really wish I had been there with Clint, but it was time to put on my fake smile; I’d been faking it for 10 years, so what was one more night… I arrived looking magical, and anxiously looked around, waiting for Clint and his date to show. I heard from the distance a sound that was familiar; it was Clint, and he had looked so handsome with his hair flowing in the wind and a smile that could cause traffic. I smiled at him and he smiled back. He then walked up to me in front of everyone, picked me up, and spun me around, kissing me.
He said, “You look amazing and I always wanted it to be you; my life is complete when I’m with you.” We ended the night with my head resting on his shoulder, listening to love songs. I remember thinking to myself, Never take me away from this moment.
Chapter 2: White Picket Fences
Clint was finally 18-years-old, and ready to move on with life. Looking back on the parties, the drugs, the ups, and the downs, it’s surprising that Clint even made it to graduation. It was a sunny afternoon in May; Clint’s graduation was filled with proud parents, nieces, nephews, and girlfriends. Clint had such a smile on his face as he walked up to the stage to shake the principal’s hand. They called his name and the school went crazy—mostly the girls—clapping and cheering as he confidently jumped onstage without a care in the world.
I think I loved being with Clint because he made me feel safe and carefree when I was with him; it’s almost as if nothing could faze him. He took his diploma, jumped off the stage, hugged me tightly, and spun me in the air with joy on his face. His parents were so proud of him, and they smiled at me because they knew I made him happy.
We were in our teenage prime, and had the whole world in front of us. Clint had always told me that he wanted to be an architect and design huge buildings in the city. He said that he would take up school in a couple of years, and I followed him. I imagined this perfect life where I was a nurse, he was an architect, and we had a golden retriever, two beautiful boys, and a white picket fence.
Splash! Clint jumped into the lake; summer was officially here. It was our first summer together as graduates. We started off by going up to Maine to camp. My life is finally coming together, I thought to myself as we rode up that afternoon. I hadn’t seen my brothers or sister too much; everyone seemed to go their own way, and I guess we had handled my father’s illness in different ways.
It was Clint and I together the whole summer—no worries, partying, sex, and alcohol, though it was always ecstasy when I was with him. We spent every day lying in each other’s arms followed by passionate sex all night. Clint had always had a thing for marijuana. I remember one time going up to his attic and seeing plants that must have been over 4-feet tall lined up with huge buds on them. I’m not sure whether my high was from the marijuana or just the joy of being with him. Life was great; we were two young lovebirds having fun.
Some nights, my father would call me, crying hysterically, and he would tell me that he missed me. I hadn’t been home for two months, since I would stay over Clint’s house. I rushed home the night he called me for the first time crying, and saw my lonely father sitting in the corner all alone. I cried and thought to myself, Why didn’t I ever see him anymore? I felt so guilty as I cried with my father. He was a sick, lonely man, and he would never hurt a fly, but this world had hurt him so much; I wished that I could give the world to him one day.
I fell asleep slowly in the living room; the night was damp and cold, and I remember waking up feeling sick and nauseous. I ran into the bathroom and threw up as my eyes watered. I must have gotten the flu; of course, the season was changing and summer was over, and the cold house didn’t help, I assumed. I miss Clint, I thought as I walked into my room. I fell asleep quickly, so I could wake the next day to see Clint. I woke up again at 3 a.m. still feeling sick, so I ran to the bathroom again and threw up. I was officially sick with what I was sure had to be the flu. We had no medicine, so I lay on the edge of my bed with a bucket underneath.
Clint let himself in that morning, ran over to me, and held my hair as I was sweating and shaking. After I cleared my eyes, I saw a look in his eyes that was strange to me. It’s hard to describe, but here it goes: he looked as though he saw the future and me in it, and, at the same time, he looked scared.
I asked him, “Clint, what is it?”
He replied, “Let’s take your temperature.” I was confused, but felt like Clint had a reason for this. We looked in the medicine cabinet and didn’t find a thermometer, so he drove to the store as quickly as possible and arrived back in minutes. My temperature was fine, even though I had been throwing up all morning and couldn’t eat anything. I looked at the bag from the store and saw that there was another object at the bottom. Clint reached into the bag and slowly grabbed the object. “Maria, just try this for me, please?”
I couldn’t believe that I was taking a pregnancy test; I was only 19. I sat on the toilet, sweating bullets and imagining my father’s reaction—he would be so happy that I was becoming a woman and moving on with life. Then I thought, What kind of grandfather would my kid have?
As I pulled up the stick to look at the results, my heart was beating so fast that I thought I might die before I could look. I heard Clint outside, tapping his feet while walking back and forth. I slowly opened the door and looked him in the eyes; smiling, scared, and confused, but with so much hope.
James Michaels was born at 2:08 a.m. in Malden Hospital on November 26, 1985. He weighed 7 pounds, 2 ounces—a perfect size, the doctor said. The first time holding him, with Clint smiling over my shoulder, was so magical. Our perfect family was here; James was my saint who saved me from depression and loneliness. He had beautiful, deep brown eyes that looked around at the world curiously. It seemed like yesterday that Clint was standing outside the door waiting for my pregnancy results.
We never planned on having James, but I think in our hearts we wanted to; we both loved each other and wanted to see what we could create together. As I gave James to Clint, I could see so clearly the picket white fence, James growing up and playing in the yard with the dog as I made lemonade in the kitchen.
My whole family visited me in the hospital the following day. My father looked like he had aged a thousand years and my mother looked so tired, since she was coming from her shift at the factory. She could only stay for an hour because she needed to get back; the poor woman worked so hard for little pay.
My brothers and sisters were happy for me and looked at James like he was God’s gift to Earth. The doctor could not believe how young Clint and I looked; he asked if we were married and we both smiled, embarrassed, and said, “Not yet.” I knew we would be married one day, but having James, my first son, was enough for me.
In the past nine months before James arrived, I had sunk into severe depression. My fake smiles were no longer able to last, and at times I thought about leaving Clint because I was not happy with myself. How could I love a man when I secretly hated myself? I don’t know if it was the pregnancy or possibly life finally catching up with me, but I had lost hope.
I stayed healthy for our new son that was arriving, since I wanted to give James the life I had never had, a comfortable, happy life with no worries. I had hoped that he would be like Clint; Clint never took life too seriously.
I was a different story; I was always paranoid and anxious because I was only used to pain. Maybe being the only child living in a psychotic house was now taking its toll. Sometimes I thought that God sent James to save me—he was the only thing in this world I had that was worth living for; he was my guardian angel.
Clint and I knew that we had to move on and start a life together. I couldn’t live with my parents anymore, especially with James. Even though we could have found someone to take care of him, I didn’t want James to live with strangers. I wanted our own family.
Clint was very creative and good with his hands; he got a construction job with one of his father’s friends. He wanted to one day start his own construction company and believed he could support us by working hard. I had the responsibility of taking care of my baby and that’s all I cared about. My world was consumed with new baby boy.
We finally found a small apartment in Andover, Massachusetts, about 20 minutes from our families’ homes in North Reading. We lived in a building on Main Street with two other families. The apartment could not have been any bigger than 500 square feet.
Jack was a single bachelor, about 40-years-old, bald, and had a scruffy beard; he was a sweet guy. Cheryl and Tim were a couple in their late twenties who had just moved in, with a baby boy on the way. They were a nice couple and could not believe how young Clint and I looked when we moved in. Cheryl asked, “How old are you guys?”
We replied, “Twenty and nineteen.” They said that if we needed anything, they would help out.
Surprisingly, Clint’s parents helped out with a down payment on the apartment, while my own parents did not want to help out because they thought we were too young to move away. I had started my own life, I told my parents, it was time for Clint and I to enjoy our new life.
Months had passed and James was getting so big; I still remember the first time that he was held by the doctor—he peed all over the wall and almost on the doctor. Of course, Clint had laughed and I had been embarrassed. James was a smiley baby; anytime that I felt depressed, it was so easy to look into those beautiful dark eyes and see how peaceful life could be. He reminded me that things could always be worse and made me feel like the most important person in the world.
Clint worked over fifty hours a week, and he would come home exhausted, but so excited to throw James in the air and watch him smile and laugh. Clint was in love with his son and I knew that he would be a wonderful father. He didn’t make too much money, but he always sacrificed his earnings to make sure our rent was paid and we had food on the table; he provided greatly, for a boy just nineteen-years-old.
Our family weekends were great; Clint had a day off every other weekend, and we would take James to fairs, to shopping malls, and to the park. Clint would love to put James on his shoulders, and James would have the biggest smile on his face. James had light brown hair and deep-set dark eyes like Clint’s mother. He had a round face like my side of the family, and a smile, like Clint’s, that could stop the world.
Sometimes I wondered if one day my life would be ripped away from me like my father’s. I couldn’t shake the feeling of paranoia that my destiny was to end up like my father—
would I myself end up in a straightjacket, leaving James to pity me?
James and I would spend days and nights together while Clint worked. Clint would come home so tired, only to crack open a cold Sam Adams and kick his feet up on our old, musty, brown couch. He would ask me what was for dinner—I always had something ready—and he would then hold James and relax as he watched T.V. Was this what American families were supposed to do? I wondered. We had a happy little family; I was just turning 21 and Clint was 20. Our paltry income, however, started to make it hard to enjoy extra activities with each other.
I decided to get a job that would allow us to have some more income. My mother agreed to watch James while I worked. I found a job as a Mary Kay makeup consultant; it wasn’t my dream job, but it was a start. I still hoped that one day I could become a nurse.
My mother was a loving, kind woman named Eva; she was shy and beautiful, she had a smile that never judged anyone, and she could make you feel her warmth as she walked into a room. She had struggled earlier in life, but never complained. She loved James so much, and would do anything for him. On his second birthday, she bought him a big teddy bear that made him smile so much that the whole room lit up when she handed him his present.
Time passed quickly; James was turning three soon. Clint had to work more hours just to support us, I didn’t see him too much, and I felt as if we were losing each other slowly. We would fight constantly when he got home and barely had time for each other anymore. I hated my job, but at least I got to come home to my beautiful son.
Some days, I wanted to leave and never come back; the day after James turned three was when I almost lost it. I remember sitting in the car, very confused and looking at James in the backseat through the rearview mirror. He looked so innocent and was just staring at me, baffled. It was almost like he could detect that something was wrong.
I wanted to take my car, with James in it, and drive away and never come back. I wanted it to be just us forever; he was the only thing in this world that made me happy anymore. I never saw Clint, my father was lost in denial, and my siblings each had their own families. I felt like it was me against the world, and I wanted to disappear from it all. As I had my foot on the gas, ready to leave with James and never come back, I looked at my baby in the rearview one more time.
James looked back and all I could see was a part of me in his eyes. Then, all I could see was how much he looked like his father. Even though I was so miserable, depressed, and scared of what life would become if James and I didn’t leave, I thought, How could I take James away from his loving father?
I guess that the white picket fence was so close that I was afraid to reach it; I was so used to dark places. I went back into the house with James, put him to bed, and cooked Clint dinner. He came home that night tired and kicked his work boots off. We sat at the dinner table together and each had a glass of wine, laughed, and talked. It felt like we had missed each other and hadn’t had a night like this for so long.
I was still the girl smiling in Clint’s old muscle car. That night, we made love passionately; it had been almost one full year since we had had sex, with us drifting apart. I feel like it brought us so much closer that night. Our intimacy wasn’t planned or forced, and even though it could have been the wine, it felt so right.
September 22, 1989 arrived, and Jared Michaels was born. James looked up at his brother with a smile, since he knew that he had a best friend entering this world. James and his brother would be around four years apart; I couldn’t wait until the day when they would be playing in our backyard in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. This is the perfect time for our family to become closer. I look back on the day when I was sitting in my car with James; things would be so different now if I had left with him then. James wouldn’t have had a brother, and would have barely known his father.
My mother and father were so excited at the hospital that day, and Clint’s parents arrived shortly after with big smiles. Clint’s father held James up in the air and said, “Be nice to your new brother,” as James laughed.
Jared Orion Michaels was his name, and he looked like his mother. He had dark green eyes and a full set of hair already. The doctors gave us a scare when he was first born; he had a breathing problem due to his umbilical cord being wrapped around his neck. I feared that I was going to lose him; he was on a heart monitoring system for over a month.
They said that we had almost lost him, but that we had gotten lucky. Jared was my second blessing in this world. Clint and I, now parents of two, grew closer that day.
A week later, James, Jared, Clint and I stayed home on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Our apartment in Andover was too small for the four of us, I told Clint. He was scared, but knew what had to be done. We had, however, no money saved up and two kids to support, and knew that one day our modest little apartment wasn’t going to be enough.
During this time, I often suffered severe panic attacks. They had started happening to me when as I was around 21-years-old, right after Jared was born. The feeling was so hard to describe, and Clint never understood. It felt as though my chest was being trampled by elephants; my head would spin and I would look down at my arms and could see everything moving so fast, and I would come so close to passing out and then it would just pass. The panic attacks were no longer than a couple of minutes, but I cried afterwards because I was frightened. I worried that I was slowly becoming my father—was this the start? Who would take care of my children?
I was diagnosed three months later with severe depression and anxiety. They put me on Prozac. It helped a little bit, but my condition got worse. I often cried when I looked at Jared and James because seeing them made me feel sad that I was like this. I didn’t know why it had happened, but I suffered almost every day with miserable depression. The doctors tried switching my doses and increasing them to the point where I was basically a vegetable. Clint started to fight with me and made me feel like I had caused these problems; I would cry myself to sleep at night. James would lie bed with me to keep me company until he was old enough to go to school. He was only five, but I swear he could always make me feel safe.
Jared was just a young little guy, and he would leave his crib and crawl to James’ room or James would run into his room and tease his brother all of the time. He loved his brother, but I guess that’s what brothers do. Clint and I started to drift apart again; he couldn’t handle me not eating anything at the dinner table and detested that I was miserable even with the kids sleeping in the other room. I couldn’t find a cure. My friends had all left town and my world was lonely again; it seemed like my destiny was to become my father.
James started first grade the following year and was so grown-up. I remember spending the fifty dollars I had earned from selling makeup to buy him his OshKosh suspenders—he looked so cute in them. He went to the Bancroft School in Andover, where he took the bus from the stop up the street. He was such a happy, energetic kid who was excited for school.
The first day he went on the bus, I remember panicking as I watched him leave my sight, waving from the bus. I never wanted him to leave, but then I looked at my other beautiful son Jared, dozing in my arms. As I sat on the couch with Jared, watching the clock anxiously for the moment when James would be dropped off, I received a call.
“Miss Michaels,“ I replied, even though I was still Maria Vareno.
“This is Joe, Clint’s boss. He… had an accident.” My heart sank and I looked at Jared in terror.
I replied slowly, as my voice was shaking: “Is he okay?“
“I’m afraid he is in the hospital,” Joe said. I called my mother and asked if she could watch the kids immediately. She was just getting off a 12-hour shift, but came over in an instant. I rushed to Lawrence General Hospital to see Clint.
My heart was racing as I reached into my glove compartment to grab a Xanax. I twisted the cap, and all of the pills fell on the ground. I didn’t care; I just needed to know that Clint was okay. As I pulled the car up to the front door and hopped out, I left my keys in the ignition.
When I ran to the front desk and asked for Clint, they said he was in the emergency room and had slipped a disk in his back. I cried and realized how much Clint meant to me when the nurse told me the news. I waited anxiously until they allowed me in to see Clint. As I walked to his room, my face was flushed, my palms sweaty, and my stomach and chest felt so tight that I nearly vomited. I saw him lying there looking pale white. He was asleep and had an IV bag attached to him. I asked what it was just as the nurse told me, “It’s morphine.”
I held Clint’s hand tightly and squeezed so hard. My tears took off my mascara and my nose was running as I sighed. The nurse said that Clint had slipped a disk that was a part of the lower back, and that this could affect him throughout his life. The nurse said that he may not be able to work again. BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! I jumped out of my seat as the nurse ran over to Clint; his body was turning red all over and he was going into shock as a reaction to the morphine. The time that this was happening really put life into perspective. My twenty-five-year-old life flashed before my eyes. In this split second, I saw my father becoming sick, my two beautiful sons being born, and the white picket fence disappearing as I screamed. I couldn’t lose Clint. I squeezed his hand so tight, and then I felt a small squeeze as the beeping started to stop. “Maria?”
“Yes, Clint,” I replied, crying. I could see his eyes watering, but he refused to cry.
He paused and looked me in the eye, took a deep breath, and said, “Maria Michaels , will you marry me?” I cried hysterically and said “yes” as the nurse smiled with joy. What a happy ending to such a sad day.
James and Jared arrived at the hospital later with my mother. They were scared, but they jumped on Clint and asked if he was okay. Clint was a strong guy, and he said, “I’ll be fine, kids.” He then grinned as he shared the news: “Your mother and I are getting married, boys.”
The kids looked confused, but smiled as my mother hugged Clint and said, “Congratulations.” We all spent time together in the hospital that night after the doctor told us that Clint would be able to walk again if he went to therapy for a couple of months; we all fell asleep there as the night began.
The sun was shining on a beautiful July day. The humidity was low and the air smelled crisp and clean, I observed as my sister did my hair and fixed my dress. I was wearing my nerves on my sleeve, and my body was warm and cold at the same time. My depression was gone for that day, but my anxiety was affecting my whole body. James and Jared were staying at their cousin’s house for a couple of days while Clint and I finally got married to one another. The kids weren’t sure what was going on, although they were only six and three-years-old, after all. I couldn’t believe that we had made it this long without being married; I was ready. After Clint’s hospital injury, I realized how short life can be. We had no money for a wedding, but Clint’s parents and mine did the best they could. We got married in Andover, not far from our small apartment.
The church was beautiful, and my family filled up the aisles slowly. My knees were shaking. I could see Clint standing at the alter with his long hair and wonderful smile; he was so calm for someone getting married. When I walked up to him, we looked into each other’s eyes and I calmed down; the crowd around me disappeared. It seemed like it was Clint and I on his motorcycle years back, with the wind blowing and our future in front of us. The priest read the vows and we looked into one another’s eyes, just two young kids ready to continue their journey of life together forever.
“I do,” Clint replied immediately after my ‘I do,’ and I remember a long kiss as he grabbed me in front of the whole family. His buddies cheered and laughed as we turned around, hands held. My family smiled as we ran down the aisle and into the limousine. Before we got into the limo, I turned around to see my family again, and through the crowd of smiling faces, I saw my father. He had no expression on his face, but I swear I could see a teardrop on the bottom of his cheek as his jaw opened up slightly for a smile of joy. The reception was beautiful; Clint and I stuffed each other’s faces with cake as he danced drunkenly. It was a peaceful dream night that I’ll never forget.
Married life made everything different. James and Jared were growing up so quickly right before our eyes. James started second grade and Jared would be starting kindergarten shortly. They would fight a lot in our crammed apartment, but loved each other so much. They were inseparable; they seemed to have a beautiful bond that would never separate them.
Christmastime was my favorite, since James would always wake Jared up at 3 a.m. and they would run to the bathroom and patiently wait for each other to pee; once they were done, they would both gently walk to the living room. I have no clue why they did this, but they would peek around the corner together to see the presents shining—it’s almost as they never wanted to leave one another’s side. Even though Clint and I didn’t make a lot of money, James’ and Jared’s eyes would light up every time they opened a present, making us feel like the richest parents in the world.
During the summer, we would spend our time in Saco, Maine, camping and making s’mores as a family before Jared and James would run around with the other kids at camp. James was always on the basketball court; it seemed like everywhere he went he could attract kids to the court, even the older ones. He was really good, Clint would tell me. I remember him at the campground being 7 or 8-years-old, playing competitively with teenagers. Jared would watch James play while he rode his bicycle. Jared was also amazing; he learned how to ride a bike when he was 3-years-old. We had two beautiful sons, and we loved one another. Even though we had little money, we felt rich. The kids were getting older, however, and Clint and I needed to provide for them. The problem was that Clint didn’t make much money doing construction, and I was still selling Mary Kay make-up. Clint never got to pursue his degree to become an architect, and my nursing degree on was on hold.
In the summer when James was going into third grade and Jared was entering kindergarten, we had a hard decision ahead of us. The kids were finally starting to get close to their peers, forming close friendships. James was playing for his church basketball team at St. Augustine’s, and he loved it. He was becoming such a young athlete; also, he was very successful in school, getting A’s and joining the baseball team. Jared was really too young to understand, but we had to break the news sooner or later.
“Kids, we have some news,” we said as they gathered in the kitchen. “Your father and I have decided to buy a home and we’re going to move to North Andover.” I scrunched up my eyes nervously, waiting for their reaction.
James looked at me nervously and seemed worried that he would lose all his friends. Jared didn’t mind much himself, he just looked to follow James’ reaction. They both said, “Whatever.”
At this, Clint and I shared a smile; we were excited to finally get that white picket fence. The move was going to be to a quiet street in North Andover, the town right next to Andover, and technically to two different schools. Clint and I got a loan for the mortgage and believed we could afford the home. It was not huge, but it was a decent size, and probably triple the size of the apartment. The move was going to be right before James would start third grade and before Jared would start kindergarten.
We moved in during a Saturday in August. I remember seeing the house again as we pulled up in our beat-up old car. It was a brown, old house with a small staircase to the entrance of no more than four steps and one broken railing. To the left, it had a broken-down brown garage with no door and a dirt driveway. The inside of our house had old wooden floors and paint that was peeling off the walls slowly, but not bad. The kitchen had old cherry wood cabinets with hardwood floors and a squeaky back door that led to the backyard. The upstairs had steep steps to a three-bedroom floor. James and Jared both ran up to pick their rooms anxiously, and, of course, they fought over who had the bigger room. I looked out into the backyard and saw the white picket fence and the space for a dog to play, and imagined James and Jared playing there.
We lived right across from the Thompson School that James would be attending. The school was literally twenty feet from our house. A few minutes later, Clint came up behind me as we looked down at the kids playing catch in the backyard and whispered in my ear, “I hope we can afford this,” and laughed.
I said, “But Clint, look at how happy our kids are, isn’t it worth it?” I pondered about how my life was turning out great. Then I thought of my father again, picturing him in his rocking chair, breathing heavily and shaking his knees. It made me sad that he so rarely left the house. My mother was getting older and more tired from working; I could tell from just the look in her eyes. I told myself that I had to be strong as I watched Jared and James in the backyard. “I have to be strong for them.”