The “safe place” turned out to be a foster home. As I was made to understand, I was very lucky to get it. Most kids in my situation would have been sent to a shelter. I have never been in any of them but my roommate, Pascual, has. He says they tend to range from awful to almost posh, but most of them are at least clean. I imagine them as being like the orphanages you see in the movies, with long narrow rooms filled with little gray cots lined up in neat rows, and bad institutional food, and some sadistic overseer who won’t give you a second helping of gruel. But due to string-pulling or simple good fortune, I was spared that. There just happened to be an emergency foster home open for me.
My foster parents were named Ron and Sylvia Kaarsten. They told me to call them by their first names, which was ironic, given that I wasn’t talking and wouldn’t call them anything at all. I remember that Ron worked at some job in the postal service, not carrying letters, sorting them or something instead. I guess Sylvia was a housewife. She did a lot of sewing and it was good stuff; I could recognize that. She might have sold some pieces to boutiques. I don’t really know.
It was just them and me. They had only one spare bedroom and it was small, so they took only one kid at a time. Emergency cases only, a regular revolving door. I stayed there less than a week. I think that was about average for them.
They were decent people. I wasn’t beaten or starved or bothered like in the foster homes you hear about sometimes in the news. They didn’t make a big deal out of my silence. I suppose someone must have told them beforehand. At first it was like the elephant in the corner, but I got used to them. Or they got used to me.
Sylvia insisted on giving me a really nasty hair-combing right after I arrived. She explained that “a lot of our children have lice. I don’t think you do, but I’m going to comb you out just to make sure.” I thought she would tear the hair right out of my scalp. I never whimpered.
I got the standard package, I think. To sleep in, a windowless room, long and narrow, about the size of a closet. In fact, I think it was a closet. It was very sparsely furnished but so cramped that I had to kneel on the bed to be able to open the dresser drawers wide enough to get anything out of them. (Someone had gotten hold of my clothes somehow and packed them up nice for me and dropped them off at the Kaarstens’ apartment, so at least I didn’t have to wear donated ones.) They gave me a new toothbrush, a clean towel and washcloth every morning, three balanced and nourishing meals a day plus a snack at nine o’clock and some warm milk right before bed, as much soda pop as I wanted, and unlimited access to the television set. I’m sure they felt mighty good about themselves.
I was not allowed to be alone in the apartment so I went with Sylvia whenever she went out. I remember once when we went to a fabric store and she picked out material and a pattern for a skirt. She asked me for my opinion on two swatches of fabric: “Do you like this plaid better, Milos, or the striped?” I thought they were both ugly, but I made a show of thinking about it and then pointed at the striped. She smiled and said she agreed with me, and bought several yards of it.
During the evening when Ron was home from work, he and Sylvia would try to get me to play games with them. Monopoly, checkers, chutes and ladders, that sort of thing. Mostly I just shook my head and turned away. But I could be cajoled into playing cards, if they worked at it a little. We played just about every card game that there was. I was a much better player than they were, either that or they were letting me win. Even now, I’m still not sure which.
Sometimes Sylvia had things she wanted me to do, like dry the dishes as she washed them. I’d never had to do chores at home. We had a housekeeper, or, that is, we did up until Mom fired her about a week before everything exploded. I learned fast and always did whatever I was asked, though, which prompted Sylvia to say that I was the nicest and most obedient foster she’d ever had.
She had a friend over once and I heard her say, “This one doesn’t need looking after at all. He just sits nice and quiet, unless you ask him to do something. Then he does it, then he sits again. Not like the last one. Him I couldn’t take my eyes off of for five seconds and he was getting into something.” She said this as if she didn’t like it. As if it smelled bad. As if she wanted me to shout and sulk and slam doors and throw things. But I just meekly wiped dry the dishes and stacked them in the drainer, or polished the coffee table, or vacuumed the rug, or whatever I could to fill my time.
I would have gotten on my knees and licked the floor clean if they told me to. But I would not speak to them.
When I wasn’t doing a chore and we weren’t out and Ron wasn’t home yet, I watched TV. I would sit on the couch with my can of Mountain Dew and stare at the flickering screen. I watched shopping channels and sports and reality shows and cartoons and Jerry Springer but never the news. It was all garbage and I’m not sure I really saw any of it. But it was something to do.
In the evenings a lot of times Ron would sit on the sofa and watch whatever I was watching. I’m sure he must not have much liked some of the shows I picked, but he never tried to change the channel. He did try to touch me once, just put his hand on my arm. I flinched. He did not try again.
Bedtime was at ten. I would go into my room and close the door. Then I’d change into my pajamas and sit on the bed and stare at the blank wall all night long, eyes open but zoned out, in a kind of trance. There weren’t even any posters in that dull little room, but I imagined there was a window. Sometimes the window would overlook the mountains or the ocean or a rain forest or something. Sometimes it would be looking in, in at a room full of books with a gas fireplace and a blonde woman and her dark-haired son reading before it.
I don’t think I got any sleep at all the whole time I was with the Kaarstens. I can’t swear to it, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t. All my senses were on Red Alert all the time. Any sudden noise or unexpected touch made my heart race. Once when I was passing a dish to Sylvia at the dinner table our hands touched and I dropped the dish in shock and spilled food everywhere. I simply could not relax enough to drift off. And I’m sure the caffeine helped as well. All those Mountain Dews.
In the mornings I would carefully examine my reflection in the mirror before I showered. Every day I seemed to get a little bit paler, the lines under my eyes a little bit deeper. And the dark circles that clung to my skin like wet flower petals were fading, turning yellow. I think the Kaarstens knew I wasn’t sleeping, or at least not sleeping well, because a long time later Pascual told me that warm milk is a sort of sedative, that heating the milk releases some kind of chemical that makes people fall asleep fast. Ron and Sylvia insisted I chug two glassfuls of the stuff every night I was there, though I didn’t like it much.
The third day of my stay there was my twelfth birthday. Honestly, I hadn’t thought anyone would notice. I barely remembered it myself. Sylvia didn’t mention it all day, but when Ron came home from work he brought a chocolate cake and then Sylvia got out a brightly wrapped package from her and Ron’s bedroom. I sat there like a turtle while they lit the twelve candles and sang the Happy Birthday song, and then thrust the box into my arms.
I guess the date must have been written down somewhere in my file.
I thought at the time that they were just trying to cheer me up. Later, I decided they were probably trying to shock me into talking. I was shocked, all right. I was grossly, horribly, mortally offended. I burst into tears and threw the box against the wall and went running into my room and slammed the door so hard the people in the apartment above us thumped on the floor. I tried to hide under the bed, but I was too big to squeeze beneath there so I buried myself under the blankets instead. I think I cried for a long time. There was certainly a great deal of noise anyhow and I can only assume it came from me.
When I finally ran dry I became aware of Ron sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at me with soft eyes. He had odd-colored eyes, I remember. A sort of yellowish-hazel. I didn’t know when he’d come in. Maybe right after I did. Or maybe he waited awhile. I rubbed my face on the pillow and squinted at him like what are you doing?
He hugged me. Put his arms around me and actually hugged me, as I was pushing violently against him. “Fuck off!”
He let go pretty fast after that.
“I’m sorry,” I said finally. My voice had a metallic rasp to it. I wouldn’t have recognized it as mine. The words sounded weird, foreign, like Hindi or something.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “We didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You really miss your mom, huh?”
“And my dad.” God, how I hated this place. When was he going to rescue me? Was he going to rescue me? For an awful moment I pictured him cutting his losses and flying back to Greece, leaving me behind forever.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do you want to be left alone?”
“Yes. Please,” I added, so as not to seem impolite.
A long time after Ron left me, I got up and walked out of my little room. I was very calm now with the calmness of a river frozen over. The cake and the present were gone as if they had never existed. I never saw them again. “I’m going to take a shower,” I announced to Ron and Sylvia, who were watching TV in the living room, their arms around each other. When I got under the nozzle I turned the water on as hot as I could tolerate and stood beneath the spray until my olive skin flushed bright red, until the water grew cold.
As if I really thought I could boil the pain out of me.