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I picked up the rules quickly. At Green Meadows, you don’t really have a choice. The intake counselor is the type of no-nonsense woman who will make sure you listen carefully. She approaches me the way she approaches all the girls who come in through these doors, with the suspicion of a strict parent. The rules are recited as if she already knows I’m going to break them. I guess I can’t blame her, since this is my new residential home, the home for troubled teenage girls.
The rules are, as follows:
1. No fighting.
2. No screaming.
3. Take your medications as they are given to you by the counselors.
4. No smoking.
5. No drugs, alcohol, or any controlled substances.
6. No makeup.
7. No vandalism.
8. No sharp objects, shoelaces, etc. Any items determined to put you at risk will be confiscated.
9. No crossing the bordered line without explicit permission.
The last one is to make sure we could never run away. The line, simple black duct tape on the floor, separated our living facilities: the kitchen, living room, and the bathroom from the offices of our guardians and the front door; an escape to the outside world. I’ve spent the first few days here imagining what’s going on out there, what the weather is like, if kids are playing at the park not far from here, if regular, ‘good’ teenagers were having fun with their friends, going on dates with the people they imagine kissing when they lie in bed at night.
Good kid was a label I used to have before high school and before all the problems. The bad kid label sneaked up on me. One day I turned around, and there it was. I’m not even sure what about us is so different. The girls here are mostly like the girls on the outside, we talk about the books we like and the movie stars we have crushes on, we talk about the music that moves us.
There’s rarely any dramatics with our counselors, though Tonya, my bunk-mate, has on occasion made trouble with the no smoking rule as she’s a hardcore addict and the no makeup rule as she loves her definitive black lipstick. The lipstick, she says, lets people know exactly who she is, and does a decent job of keeping conservative people away from her. “It scares them off,” she tells me one night when we can’t sleep, her on the top bunk and me on the bottom. Sometimes I like to pretend we’re at summer camp.
Our group therapy sessions could be campfire chats, I tell myself as Jean, the head psychiatrist, begins the talk. Tonya is sitting next to me, popping her nicotine gum, and I wonder if Jean will make her spit it out. I bite my inner lip until I taste the blood directly beneath the surface, before the skin actually breaks.
Kara is talking now, about her ex-boyfriend Danny; she’s still really p***** at her parents for calling the cops on him for statutory rape. He’s only nineteen, she says for the fifth or sixth time, and she’s seventeen, and it’s nothing short of archaic to keep them apart. He loves her, and what if she never sees him again? I feel bad for her, since I know her parents will keep her in here until she comes to see it their way.
Jean nods slowly. “Do you understand that your parents only have in mind what’s best for you?” she asks. Kara rolls her eyes. They’ve covered this ground before and I know it, despite being the new kid on the block. Kara started dating him last year, and her parents gave the then eighteen Danny the benefit of the doubt, but then her grades started dropping, and she stayed out past curfew, sometimes not coming home at all. Reporting her as a runaway was what landed her in juvey for five days. After that, her parents forbade her to see Danny again, but she wasn’t about to agree to that. Sneaking around led to his arrest and hers; in a sense, she was a prisoner here at Meadows, as we all are.
She showed me his picture earlier today, and I could see sneaking around for a boy who looked like that. It made me think of Brandon, my own ex, who hasn’t called in months. It was too much drama, he had told me in his break up speech, grabbing and pointing at my forearms for evidence. The marks were his incrimination. Why would I hurt myself like that, burning and cutting? Why couldn’t I just handle things like a normal person? That’s what he wanted: a normal girl.
That’s what my parents wanted too, and that’s why they admitted me here. They didn’t know how to handle it from the start, my father a stoic man who rarely spoke unless spoken to, and my mother who, as a popular cheerleader in high school, couldn’t understand my melancholy, my pain. Why hadn’t I joined clubs, why were my grades slipping, why was I not hanging out with the girls who were always sleeping over just the year before?
When Jean starts asking me these questions, I bite my lip even harder and feel the skin break now. I don’t have answers for her, and I don’t like talking about my feelings in front of Jason, the only male counselor, who‘s standing a few feet away from me right now. He’s twenty-three and is the most fun of all the counselors. He lets us slack on our cleaning chores, and have extra snacks, and he’s so, so cute. I don’t know if my crush is real, or just an escape from the day-to-day here, but I get giddy and nervous around him. He’s looking at me right now, waiting to hear what I have to say. I don’t want him to see what Brandon saw in me.
“I don’t have anything to say right now,” I say to Jean. She stares at me from across the room with a look of reproach. This is her way of pressuring us. Non-verbal skills can be a strong weapon, I’m learning that here. I keep my mouth shut. We don’t have to talk in group sessions if we don’t want to. But of course, as the counselors running the place like to remind us, the longer you go without talking, the longer your time here will be.
“Susie, are you sure?” she asks me. I nod wordlessly, testing these new weapons.
“We’ll see how you feel tomorrow then,” she says ‘we’ like we’re investigating some mystery together, or we’re on the same sports team. This is how she gains our trust. She moves on to Tonya, who is eager to get going.
Tonya was sent here after the cops were called to her house by the neighbors. They had heard loud yelling and the sound of glass breaking. By the time the cops arrived, the whole ruckus was winding down with Tonya sitting on the front steps and her mother in the living room, smoking a cigarette. They both had cuts on their arms, and the only thing that was clear to the police was that someone had begun throwing beer bottles, and they both had thrown punches. I still don’t know who started the fight, or who started the bottle throwing, but Tonya’s mom was taken to the county jail for the night and Tonya was brought here. Police were still investigating, last I heard.
She can’t get along with her mother, Tonya tells Jean. Her mother was the most judgmental person you would ever meet, she goes on. I have a feeling that Tonya’s mother was one of those scared off by her daughter’s lipstick.
Wednesdays are the days when we get to go outside for about an hour. The counselors, usually two of them, take us out to the little court in the backyard, with an impressive amount of space and a fence taller than all of us, even Lisa, who could be drafted for the WNBA any day now. Just for even more assurance of our captivity, there’s barbed wire on the top.
I sit on the bench and watch Tonya and Rebecca doodle with chalk on the pavement. I wonder if we’ll play hopscotch, like we’re kids again. I don’t know why, but I always find myself staring at the upstairs floor from the outside on Wednesdays.
The second floor is mostly restricted, and there’s only one room I can go in up there, Jean’s office. The most off-limits room is the master bedroom, where the old woman who donated this house in her will to Social Services slept night after night. There’s a picture of her in the front hallway, honoring her memory.
I wonder what kind of woman she was, and what kind of house this was before it became Green Meadows. Sometimes when I’m awake and Tonya’s asleep, I hear creaks and little sounds emanating from the second floor. I can’t help but imagine the woman’s ghost sitting in her old bed, the bed where she had died.
My fifteen years of life had been mostly predictable, but sometimes I surprise myself; like my friendship with Tonya, for instance. I joke that outside of this place, we’d never be friends because I’m an asthmatic. She’s one of those girls that I have always been a little afraid and a little jealous of for their ability to stand up for themselves, their brutal honesty, and unflinching bravery. Tonya easily could have been a warrior in another life.
I find myself growing closer to her, and feeling her watch out for me, like the big sister I never had. She was the first person I showed the scars to willingly. She told me about her mother.
“She hates me,” she said, as we carved our initials into the wooden bars of our bunk beds with her nail file, risking punishment for vandalism and for having the nail file that Tonya somehow got past everyone. “That’s our biggest problem.”
“Are you sure she really hates you?” I ask. “Sometimes people say things they don’t mean.”
“I know, Susie. Trust me,” I hear her tone turn defensive and that’s when I know it’s time for me to be quiet. She doesn’t talk to me about the night she was brought here. Only in her solo sessions with Jean, she says. “I don’t have a choice then.”
“In my opinion, you are clinically depressed.” Jean says to me as we sit in her office alone. “Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself?”
“Like suicide?” I ask. “No.”
She nods and writes something on her notepad. “I believe we need to start you on low-dose anti-depressants,” she says without looking up.
I never pictured myself on pills like that. I always figured that anyone on pills like that needed more help than I ever would. I may be a ‘bad’ girl now, but that girl? What did that say about me? That I was too weak to deal with life, so I needed to medicate myself? I didn’t know what to think. Either way, it didn’t matter what I thought. I swallowed the pills when the counselors called for me to, and opened my mouth so they could see it was gone. I waited for them to transform me into the girl everyone wanted me to be.
Parent visits happened once every two weeks. My mother brought me some homemade chocolate cookies, which the intake counselor promptly took away from her. “It’s against policy, ma’am,” she said. My mother huffed defiantly and marched toward me.
“I can’t believe the nerve of that woman. Telling me what I can and can’t feed my own daughter,” she said. I held my tongue; I wouldn’t point out the fact that by placing me here, my mother didn’t have custody of me anymore. They did, however, let my mom bring me fashion magazines. “A little bit of fun, to raise your spirits,” she told me. I knew that she hoped all the fashion and makeup tips would open me up, that fixing my surface would fix whatever deeper monsters lurked beneath.
“Your father sends his love,” she said before she left. I knew he wouldn’t show up today, this was the kind of stuff he avoided at all costs.
I looked at the girls in the fashion magazines, and felt my own personal failure wash over me. I’d never look like them, and I’d never live a fabulous life like them.
Tonya left a week later. She was visited by the police in her last few days here. They questioned her in our room, and I wasn't allowed to be there. The night before she left I joined her on the top bunk, once again risking punishment. That was an unwritten rule, I guess, since they never wanted to get into particulars about sleeping together or implied homosexuality.
“Tonya, what happened that night?” I asked, knowing she might not answer.
She was quiet for a while, so much so that I wasn’t sure she had heard me, and I had begun to think she’d fallen asleep.
“They’re putting me in a foster home,” she whispered, and for the first time, I heard her voice breaking.
We said nothing after that. What else was there to say?
The next morning, we hugged and said our goodbyes as her social worker gathered her things. “Call me when you get out,” she said, giving me her new number on a piece of paper with a cartoon sticker on it.
As I watched her walk out the door, I said a small prayer for her; that her new home would be safe, and she could wear all the black lipstick she wanted.
I’ve been here for two months now. I watch my scars fade, getting smaller and smaller with each inspection. I can almost remember what the cold of a knife or the heat of a burner felt like against my delicate skin; how fragile I was. Jean says I’ll have to meet new challenges when I leave Green Meadows. I go home tomorrow. It’s weird to say that, because in spite of the imprisonment, the therapy sessions, and the revolving door of counselors and troubled teenage girls, this place feels like home to me.
My mother picks me up, and this time my dad’s actually with her. He puts his arms around me tight, and tells me he loves me. Sometimes people surprise you. We’re packing my bags into the car when I suddenly jump up. “I forgot something,” I say and run back inside.
The girls standing around look at me with slight jealousy as I run by. I understand; it’s hard to watch others leave. I go into the room Tonya and I shared, and touch the wood of our bunk beds. I feel for our initials until I find them, a little T and S as far back as we could get it. I doubt anyone else would ever notice it, but I left secure in the knowledge that we had documented our history there in the smallest way we could.