Bouncing and swaying in my seat, I picked at the rip in the green vinyl bench beside my leg as I stared intently out the small window fogged with breath and fingerprints and snot.
I was looking for my house.
This was my first time riding a school bus. I knew to get on the bus heading to the south end of The Island, but I did not know my stop. My brother was on the middle school bus. My sister, on the early elementary school bus. I was alone.
Ask the bus driver, I told myself.
But my throat was tight with embarrassment and fear.
Any ten year old child should know their bus stop.
So I watched out the window, hoping I would see my house from the Boulevard.
I knew what it looked like, this new house that was now my home. We moved in about a week ago, over Christmas break. It was beautiful. It was big. The dunes were just steps away from this oceanfront home with brown cedar shingles and yellow trim.
Of course, we didn't own the house. We didn't even live in it. We lived in the little apartment above the garage. Church mice. The Bishop owned the house and he lived there some weekends and a good bit over the summer. Mommy had taken a job as his housekeeper and cook.
I always thought the change I put in the collection baskets went to feeding the poor.....
With the sleeve of my winter coat I cleared away my breath from the window, but I still couldn't see far enough up the side streets to recognize our house.
I could get off the bus if I see a payphone, I thought.
But who to call? Mommy? I didn't know our new phone number yet.
The police? I didn't know what address to tell them.
I thought it would be exciting to ride a bus. When I was younger, and my parents were still together, my brother and sister and I went to Catholic school, and Daddy drove us there on his way to work.
When my parents divorced we moved to this quiet place on the Jersey shore. A cold and desolate place, she had already slipped into her winter coma by the time we arrived. Our home was the back half of a second floor unit, and it was right on the bay and only a couple blocks from my new school. So different from the two story Victorian with the green yard and the swing set and the picket fence and the climbing trees. The new house was small, just four rooms in all. But it had a dock. And the whole yard was sand and gravel. So cool.
We weren't there long (a few months?) before we
moved to Kentucky to live with Daddy. There were so many things my brother and sister and I didn't understand. But what can you do? You do what the grown-ups tell you. You go where they tell you to go. You don't ask questions.
But we weren't there long (less than a year?) before we
moved back to New Jersey to live with Mommy. Only now we had a new baby sister.
So much to understand.
Don't ask questions.
We did not move back into the little house on the bay. We moved into the apartment above the Bishop's garage, in his brown cedar shingle house with the yellow trim.
If I thought the house on Bayview was small, this was tiny. A living/dining area with a strip of kitchen along the back wall. A small bath. One bedroom. My baby sister was in her crib. My younger sister and I shared the twin bed, and my brother slept on the trundle bed that we pulled out from beneath ours each night. Mommy slept on the couch.
This was the 8th house (or 9th?) that I had lived in.
Still, I would recognize it. If only I could see it.
And then, the last stop. The remaining three kids stood up and gathered their books and began shuffling their way to the front. I got up and moved forward with them, trying to appear confident, praying I wouldn't get caught by the bus driver.
My feet connected with the pavement. The bus door whooshed shut behind me. A gust of wind stole my breath.
I turned eastward, toward the sea, toward my home, and marched across the empty lanes of the wide road. I walked with conviction the block or two till I arrived at Ocean Blvd. I knew with certainty that my house was on this street. But where? I looked left. I looked right.
I had no clue.
It occurred to me that I would be able to recognize it more easily from the beach. So I walked straight ahead, wavering only slightly as the road disappeared from beneath my feet and became the endless sand that grabbed at me and struggled to pull me under; to swallow me.
Once I crested the dunes, with the eternal ocean before me, I paused again and wondered,
In the coin-toss of my mind, I turned right, towards the southern tip of The Island.
I don't know how long I walked.
I walked with purpose, my head shifting constantly from the sand before me to the ocean on my left, to the houses on my right.
I walked till my legs and feet ached with the effort of battling the sand.
I walked until my hands and face were numb with the cold. Numb from the wintry seaspray carried on the biting wind.
I thought many times that perhaps I should turn and walk the other direction. But what if my house was on the next block?
One more block.
One more.... one more .....
The light was fading.
The salt of my tears, so cold against my face, mixed with the salt of the ocean and left my face raw and chapped.
I was afraid.
I looked out at the ocean and saw a gull afloat on the waves.
I was adrift.
I was lost.
A child lost to poverty.
A child who had lost her father. Like the bridge that tenuously connected the strip of island to the mainland, so the chasm between my father and myself was spanned. Separated by a vast distance, physical and otherwise, yet still tethered thinly together.
A child lost from her mother. No physical distance to separate us, not with the close living quarters, yet unreachable nevertheless. She was the alluring sandbar that looked so welcoming with its clear, gentle waters to splash in. So close, almost within reach, yet separated by a gulf of dark, swirling water. The sandbar could only be reached by chancing the riptide. So much promise, so much risk. There was no bridge to safely cross over to connect with her. To connect with her mind. She was an island within an island.
A child lost in the most literal sense, as I did not know how to find my way home.
Lost in every sense of the word.
I began to pray.
I prayed for home. I prayed for my mother's arms. I prayed for the scanty warmth of the baseboard heater. I prayed that God would send me a sign. I prayed that He would carry me home.
And He sent me a sign.
As I trudged on, and wiped at my tears and my leaking nose with the back of my sleeve, I began to notice....
Everyone was walking the other way.
Every person (though there were not many).
Even the seagulls all seemed to be flying north.
I took this as my sign. I turned about and started walking with renewed purpose. Now with the ocean to my right, the houses on my left, and the northern tip of The Island, with its lighthouse, many miles straight ahead.
I felt rejuvenated. I felt determination creeping into my soul. The wind dried my tears and I pressed on, picking up speed.
When I turned in the direction I was pointed, I left behind my fears, my indecision, my feeling of being adrift on an uncertain sea. I shed them; they fell off me and pooled briefly in my footsteps before sinking into the sand, gone forever. I would not define myself as lost. Not lost to poverty, or distant parents, or dependence on others for my fate.
The tide was coming in. The waves were crashing forcefully on the shore, creeping closer and closer up the beach, threatening to steal me away.
But they would not take me.
They would not take me from my home.
I was no longer lost.
This place was home.
My mother was home, even when her mind carried her far away.
My brother, my sisters were home.
Most importantly, I was home in myself. In my heart, my soul, my strength, my thoughts and ideas and faith. Home.
And then, with the light nearly gone from the sky, up on the left nestled in the dunes, sat the brown shingled house with yellow trim, with light spilling from the windows of the little apartment above the garage.
God had carried me home.