By Angelica Rosa
This essay appears in Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices, published by Tin House Books in October 2018.
On my street, growing up, it took under thirty-two steps to walk straight to any store. After school, as I passed my friends walking together, or with their parents—knowing my mother was home in bed—I counted the steps it took to get to each store so I would know how fast it would take to get home. Back in my apartment, after putting away bags of whatever I purchased for my mother, I would read stories to her that I had written. Trying to get her to smile, I used theatrical gestures and my best storytelling voice. Growing up with a mother who has bipolar disorder, no day was a straight or level line. But even on days I was needed at home and wasn’t able to join my friends, no day went by without my writing stories.
I wrote at a desk by a window that faced the stores on the street. Picking up my mother’s prescriptions at the pharmacy took thirty-one steps. The market took twenty-four. When my mother was not able to work and things got rough with money, we had to barter with the landlord by buying him food as payment for rent. In the market, I weighed bananas and apples, and whatever fruit cost the least. I learned how to be observant and resourceful, to take charge, and to value caring for someone else. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, all those steps I took on my street have shaped me into who I am today.
Learning to pay attention to details and cues that signaled my mother’s needs allowed me to transfer this awareness to my writing. I tried to tap into the heart of each character I created. Every day, I wrote pages about different characters, creating adventures and stories about their lives. This gave me a sense of connection to a world outside my home life that I often didn’t feel growing up.
But there were times growing up when I enjoyed my mother’s company. During the summer of my first year of high school, the last summer with my mom’s Honda, we drove into Queens. Although we didn’t have much to say to one another, we walked in and out of small antique shops, both falling in love with antique picture frames and salt-and-pepper shakers.
As the day progressed and the sun boiled above us, her irritability began to surface. I knew that the best thing to do was leave before she had a full-blown episode. Instead, she walked into a hole-in-the-wall bookshop. The place was crowded with thick books on uneven, wooden shelves. Greeting cards and bookmarks collected dust on the main desk in front of the brass cash register.
My mom told me to look around. The mustiness of old books gave me an instant headache. I decided to pick up the closest book with the most interesting cover. A hardcover, with a purple slip, caught my attention. I ripped it out from a tightly packed shelf as quickly as I could without pulling the whole shelf down. My mother grabbed it from my hands and the cashier rang it up. Twelve dollars. Before I could escape the embarrassment and snatch it back from the cashier with a swift excuse, my mother began fishing through her pocket. First came the crumpled five-dollar bill. Then came the handful of change. And without as much as a blink of the eye, my mother counted. The cashier waited for every quarter, dime, nickel, and penny, and then dumped the handful of change into the brass register that clanked with every coin. The book was mine. As we left the store, with the book tucked under my arm, my mother turned to smile at me. Without much thought, I grabbed her hand and crossed the street with her to the car. Those were steps I walked with joy.
My mother is the woman who taught me to stand on my own two feet. And for every time the silence grows too loud between us, I’ll remember that she spent her last handful of coins on me in that bookstore. I’ll remember that she has always tried her best to make me smile. I’ve learned to cherish my time with her, because for every bad day, there was a good day that made it all worth it again. And despite all the rough patches her disorder created, her faith in me, and my passion for writing, will always motivate me to move forward.
About the Author:
Angelica Rosa was born in Brooklyn, New York. She attended Long Island City High School in Queens and the State University of New York at New Paltz. She wrote this essay in 2014.
From Girls Write Now: Two Decades of True Stories from Young Female Voices. Copyright © 2018 by Angelica Rosa. Reprinted with permission from Tin House Books.
Photo (top) Credit James and Karla Murray Photography