We moved into a slanting house near Minot State University and waited for Joyce to buy us a house. We did not hold our breath. Bram got a job at the University Bookstore. I got a job at Joann Fabrics that I quickly grew to loathe. Joann isn’t really a craft store; its sole purpose is to make money. Less than half the store is given to fabrics. Less than a quarter of the store is given to crafts. The rest is useless junk –at the time I worked there they sold a lot of what I called ‘yard decorations.’ Joann doesn’t care if its workers know how to sew or craft. They insist you cut a certain way, to be aware of the ‘infinitesimal inch’. If you give away an inch with every cut, the company loses $$$. But the method they use to cut rips off the customer. I’ve gotten used to asking for a quarter yard more than I need at Joann because in my career you don’t have time or budget to come up short a few inches.
I developed peripheral neuropathy after the accident that broke my ankle and put stitches in Nick’s face. In shorter words: I have nerve damage in my feet. Nerve damage manifests (at least for me) as a fiery pain. It felt like I was walking on burning knives. It took 10 years for me to get a doctor who actually listened to what I was saying and diagnose me. I have medication for it now. But I cannot stress enough: don’t be timid with your doctor. MAKE THEM LISTEN.
It hurt me in my seamstress’s heart and my burning feet to work at Joann so I got a job at… … A daycare center! In a church! I was put in with the infants at first since I was a mother. But the lady in charge of the infant room got huffy with me when I asked how to mix formula. As a mother, I should know. I got huffy back at her and told her I nursed my children; did she want me to whip out a boob?
I was moved into the potty training room and did very well there. When the day care center won the bid for daycare at the Job Corps Center, I was moved over there into a supervisory position. Yay, me. Nick got a job at a convenience store and Monica was finishing high school. We started going to Monday night pizza again with Bram’s family. Karen and I began a battle over what Bram could eat. Her theory was a little bit wouldn’t hurt. My opinion was we shouldn’t take any chances.
Monica, Nick and I counted the carbs Bram ate. We hid snacks from him–a visitor to our house once complained there was nothing in our fridge except condiments. We had dozens of spices to dress up the food that was good for Bram that he insisted he was allergic to. The food, not the spices.
We visited Joyce to see if the promised house was going to happen. It wasn’t; she didn’t have money for a down payment and couldn’t get a loan since she and Jerome had both retired. Jerome had PTSD from serving in Vietnam so he had to retire. Joyce had some illness, real or imagined, that I quit listening to as soon as she started talking about it.
This is when Joyce and Jerome would tell me things like I had knowledge of them when there was no way I could. Joyce said Tonia had gone off the deep end. Tonia had thrown Doug out of the house, you know. (I didn’t know.) Tonia was drinking all the time and doing drugs too, you know. I didn’t know and I believed the drinking but doubted the drugs. Tonia had taken up with Bell, who owned Bell’s lounge, you know, and was a known drug dealer. I don’t know who Bell is.
Tonia had started leaving her kids home alone for weeks at a time, you know, starting when AJ was 16 and Kelsie was 11 and Abbi was 4. AJ got the girls off to school and daycare because Tonia was never home. AJ and Kelsie had walked down to Joyces to get food several times before Joyce finally bought them groceries. The house was a mess, you know. Joyce acted like I was supposed to be scandalized, but it sounded like my childhood. What scandalized me was that Joyce lived a block away and knew those kids were living on their own and didn’t do anything about it.
Just before I brought my family back to Minot, someone finally called Child Protective Services about the situation. Kelsie was sent to live with her father Mike. Abbi was sent to her father Doug. Since AJ’s dad had never been in the picture, AJ was allowed to stay with Joyce. When AJ turned 18 Joyce adopted AJ. Joyce claimed it was to get insurance for AJ. I think that’s bullshit. Tonia was still working, however out of it she might be. AJ was surely still insured through Tonia. And even if that wasn’t the case, a person wouldn’t need to adopt AJ to pay for their insurance.
No, to me, it was the culmination of the tug-of-war that had started when AJ was born. When Joyce insisted Tonia bring the baby home while waiting for the father to sign the adoption papers. When Joyce quit her job to be AJ’s primary caregiver. When Joyce and Tonia would argue about how to raise the child. When Joyce would undermine all of Tonia’s parenting efforts. When Joyce kept AJ overnight but not Kelsie or Abbi. When Joyce would promise Nick and Monica something and then call to cancel because she and AJ had already done it.
I remembered how eager Joyce was to convince people Nick was hers. Then she went home and began a campaign to make AJ hers. She had to wait 18 years, but she finally did it. Joyce began telling everyone that AJ was Sean’s and my sister. If you asked if AJ was Tonia’s sister too, you were ignored. Joyce bought AJ a new car and let AJ move their girlfriend into the house. When I commented that Joyce never let MY boyfriends spend the night, Joyce told me that AJ and R were just best friends. Mm hm.
Joyce had let those kids basically live alone for almost 2 years. She knew it was happening and did nothing. I didn’t know it was happening. How could I? I was almost 600 miles away and cell phones still weren’t a thing. Sean didn’t know they were alone; Joyce never told him either. When Joyce finally swooped in to ‘save’ Tonia’s kids, of course AJ was grateful enough to agree to the adoption.
So Joyce finally had AJ and if you asked Joyce where Tonia was or what had happened, she didn’t know.
Bram and I hung out with Adam and Missy, and Deb and Joel. Sometimes we just went out for coffee alone. I spent time with Sean and Amy. They had two little girls who both looked so much like Amy it could break your heart. Sean was still doing well. I found out that Sean remembered EVERYTHING. All the little things from our childhood that I’d put away because they hurt too much to look at, Sean remembered. He straightened out details for me, reminded me of what happened when. It was like he was unlocking my little boxes of secrets because he would tell me something and I’d remember the rest. Some things I put right back in their boxes.
Bram and I realized Joyce wasn’t going to be part of our support system, which really didn’t surprise either of us. But Karen wasn’t going to be in our support system either. She was more than happy to support Bram, but Bram’s family wasn’t even an afterthought. Once at a dinner at her house that Bram couldn’t eat most of, Karen suggested to Bram that Bram, Karen, and Conrad should sign up for Stained Glass art classes at the university. Bram asked, “What about Michelle?’” Karen told him I wasn’t an artist.
Let me tell you about what a costume designer must know and do. We must be able to draw a human figure and put clothes on it well enough for everyone to see what the costume will look like and how it will function. We must know color theory and color psychology. Can you use color to make an audience sad or anxious? Costume designers can. We have to be able to dye fabric to get the right color, and sometimes we have to do it because the lighting designer (Bastard!) has used Bastard Amber and muddied our colors.
We have to be able to paint fabric because sometimes lace doesn’t look like lace onstage under the lights. We need to know how to paint lace to look like lace, how to paint convincing holes in fabric instead of punching actual holes that weaken the costume. We need to be able to paint dirt and wear and sweat on fabric. Costume designers are jewelry makers, and milliners, and cobblers, and tailors. We use makeup to make people look old or wounded or dead or ghostly. We style hair and wigs, make masks and gloves and monster hands and hobbit feet.
I know how to bead, embroider, knit, crochet. Not only can you show me a picture of a garment and I can make it, but I’m the one drawing the picture. And I do all this to help tell the story and clue the audience in to what’s going on, and manipulate emotions.
But I’m not an artist.
Bram declined. Karen was willing to pay for Bram to take the class without me. But not if I joined them. If I joined, Bram and I would have to pay both of our fees, which we couldn’t afford. When we were out alone, we talked about how we should’ve stayed at USD and let Bram finish his degree. The professors and students at USD had been more supportive than what we’d returned home to. Once again, Bram called the professors at USD and asked if they’d let him come back. They agreed; my former advisor Linda had one condition: USD had to hire me as her part time Shop Manager
So we were heading back to Vermillion. We were going to stay through the summer and do Summer Theatre of course. Possibly our last one; it was time to grow up and get real jobs.
One night we were out at the Dugout, playing Trivia with our friends. Manning the console made me anxious; in my excitement I’d hit the wrong buttons and then get upset because I’d lose the round for us. But I can read REALLY fast and I read everything. I have a lot of weird, unconnected information wandering around in my brain. We discovered I can access that information quickly as long as I’m not stressing about it. So basically I would chain smoke and nurse a beer and talk to my friends and Bram would drink gallons of diet Mt Dew and man the console. I’d read the question as soon as it came up on the screen and say the first thing that came to mind. Bram would translate it to the correct letter and hit the button. We kicked ass.
I got up to go to the restroom and when I came back I literally bumped into Tonia. I hadn’t spoken to her since she called after Bram’s surgery. I hadn’t seen her in almost 4 years. We stopped and stared at each other. My first impulse was to hug her. But I didn’t. I wasn’t her family any more. I couldn’t tell what the look on her face meant: was she afraid? Was she still angry? Was she about to start shrieking at me in the middle of this very public place?
I turned and quickly walked away.
It was one of the worst decisions I have ever made.
I can never forgive myself.