The Pines Residential Center, on Portsmouth Boulevard, was surrounded by a tall, iron fence. We believed it was there to keep us in. At that point, we expected locked doors, staff with keys, and intricate systems of levels and points that determined our value, our movements, our freedoms. Most of us would have stayed inside the fence, not for what the levels and points earned, but for the consistency of the arrangement.
Years later, I drove there with my husband. We were on a weekend getaway one town over in Norfolk. The day before, we’d gone vintage shopping and had dinner at a wine bar in a gentrified neighborhood. As we drove past The Pines the following day, I took in the neighborhood’s vagrancy: liquor stores and pawnshops, empty newspaper boxes with their doors hanging open, litter clogging the gutters. I realized the fence was there to keep people out, not to keep us in. The campus was long abandoned. Tall grasses and vines wove themselves between the bars of the fence. My husband slowed the car as we passed. I strained against the seatbelt, craning my neck and turning backward to take in every bar of the fence, the graffitied outbuildings, the dorm, the cafeteria, and the school. I wept.
In places like that, they don’t know you when you arrive, save for the dull, oxblood accordion folders stuffed with reports, family history, and paperwork that decides whether what you’ve told them is a lie or something your social worker wishes was a lie because you are fair-skinned and blue-eyed. The reports garnered from your hours spent with clinicians and doo-gooding grad students who were so noble in their endeavors to help kids like you, will bore you when you read them as an adult. You’ll be left to wonder, however, drinking wine alone on your couch with the files spread across your lap, why nobody pointed the finger at your mother, and how it was possible for the well-meaning grownups to agree that a twelve-year-old child could singlehandedly take down a family.
When you arrived at The Pines, you told them you were allergic to grass so you would not have to go outside. That did not work, and you had to participate in grass-based activities or risk your points being deducted. You told them you were a vegetarian, so they gave you an eating disorder protocol: a guarded bathroom two hours before and after every meal. In the beginning, you had to sit in a chair in front of the nurse’s station with your tray on your lap. Vegetarians could not be trusted on their own in the cafeteria. They brought you trays, always something soft and green, and a glob of peanut butter warmed to liquid by the vegetable’s heat in the styrofoam to-go container. You no longer eat peanut butter as an adult.
Your first roommate, Chrissy, said she was Lita Ford’s cousin. You did not know who Lita Ford was. You learned she had a song with Ozzy Osbourne. That made it okay for you and Chrissy to shatter cassette tapes and dip the tiny metal pieces into pools of ballpoint pen ink, and gouge upside-down cross tattoos and pentagrams on your ankles. You met another girl who said her mother was a witch. You told her your mother was also a witch, and she gave you an address in Florida. You wrote letters asking for witchy guidance, but they were never answered.
Christmas was a bounty. Oh, how difficult it was to arrive at the perfect gift, valued at ten dollars or less, from the Methodist Aid lady. One year, you asked for a Def Leppard tape, which was surely under ten dollars. It was still the eighties. You received, instead, a hollow, plastic California Raisins bank with two boxes of Sun-Maid raisins attached to the bank with a cellophane wrapper. Without the Def Leppard tape, you had a silent cassette player. The points you’d earn for not being sent to the quiet room and for making your bed every day did not take the form of coins, so the California Raisins bank sat empty. You never liked raisins anyway.