Looking at a picture of me at age four, I smile. The curly-haired youngster with brown eyes, an olive complexion and a pert nose is grinning. I can almost hear her laugh, but I don’t feel any connection to her. She could be anybody’s precious child. Snapshots of me at seven and eight show a growing girl with an attitude. She looks confident and resolute. Not like the tentative kid I remember with the bedwetting problem, who was forced to sleep on a rubber mattress attached to an alarm that blared the second any piss hit it.
Fortunately, my life changed about the time I turned nine. I continued to pee in my bed, but uninterrupted sleep for Mother and me was deemed more important than some smelly sheets. She got rid of the mattress. Even better, she stopped chasing after my father, which allowed us to settle down. We moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment in the Castle Heights Apartment Complex in Los Angeles, where the only feature that differentiated the eight two-storey buildings from one another was the color of the exterior paint. Our flat, designated Apartment D, was on the second floor in one of them. I found the sameness comforting. We lived in the Castle Heights Apartments on Castle Heights Avenue and I attended the Castle Heights Elementary School. Everything was in harmony, as if meant to be, down to residing in Apartment D, like my name, Darlene. I made sure to include that fact whenever I gave out my address.
Although I grew up in Los Angeles, the city known for Hollywood, the rich and famous, and sandy beaches with muscle-bound men and buxom, bikini-clad women, my reality was something else again. We lived on a block between the railroad tracks and a major boulevard. Instead of cavorting by the ocean or shopping at the fancy stores on Rodeo Drive, our neighborhood offered other possibilities. We ran along the tracks as fast as we could; guessed the number of cars on the passing freight trains; played handball against garage doors; and devised new routes through the adjacent trailer park to see who could get to Jim’s convenience store the quickest. I went there frequently, not just to buy Baby Ruth’s and red licorice vines with the money I made collecting bottles, but also to buy cigarettes for my mom. Please sell this child one pack of Pall Mall cigarettes read the note I carried. Jim knew me well.
My family situation was unique. The kids I hung out with all had brothers and sisters as well as two parents. I was the only child of a single mom. That didn’t bother me until dinnertime when our street emptied and I was left alone. We didn’t have a set time for dinner. My mother came and went at different hours. I never knew when she was coming home. I was special in other ways, too. I spoke with a nasal voice, the result of a birth defect; and the clothes I wore to school were a jumble of ill-fitting, mismatched skirts and blouses. I didn’t care. Those were the days when I didn’t worry about how I looked.
Everything changed after I got to high school and discovered a world beyond the Castle Heights Apartments. Suddenly, I was in classes with budding cheerleader types from the nearby wealthy community of Cheviot Hills. Dressed in pleated skirts and sweater sets with matching bobby socks and meticulously polished saddle shoes, they taught me the meaning of envy. Even their hair was perfect. With my clumpy mass of dull, brown hair, ugly shoes and outmoded attire, I was an easy target, especially because I didn’t fight back. I knew my place, thanks to Mom and Terri Lee who’d made that clear years before, when I was nine.
It was Mom with the porcelain skin, hazel eyes, and apricot-colored hair who regularly reminded me how different I was. It was Mom who looked askance at me while slithering into her snazzy size 8 capri pants while my expanding teenage body could barely fit into a size 12. It was Mom who suffered through “Three days and nights of excruciating labor” to produce a daughter that looked nothing like her. And, it was Mom who brought Terri Lee home, the exquisitely costumed blond doll, for my ninth birthday, except that I wasn’t allowed to touch her. Placed prominently on a shelf in our living room to be admired, I can’t recall what ultimately happened to that 16″ piece of plastic and fluff. I wish that I’d torn her head off and ripped her fancy clothes to shreds, but I know I didn’t.
I directed my rage inward, gaining more weight and getting involved with men who played on my low self-esteem. I believed Mom loved Terri Lee more than me, maybe more than she loved herself. Her obsession with dolls lasted a lifetime. Following her death, as I was sorting through her things, I found a Barbie, one of those synthetic specimens with great bone structure, an unblemished complexion and impossible measurements. “Uh-huh,” I muttered as I hurled the figure toward the sky. I bet there’s a gathering of Terri Lees and Barbies in doll heaven right now sharing stories and laughing about all the power they wielded on humans who couldn’t get past the fantasy.