by Trey Burnette
CW: Suicide attempt
I was twelve and just more than halfway through seventh grade when we moved near Santa Cruz. We lived two blocks from the beach in a rented midcentury house in an eclectic neighborhood—a mix of well-maintained homes, vacation rentals, and beach apartments. The residential streets were nice and quiet. The rougher part of the neighborhood was closer to the beach. There were two liquor stores, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of beach motels—one where I learned I could grab a donut from their continental breakfast before the morning school bus arrived. Beyond that area, there were poorly maintained rentals and beach bums who drank paper-bag beer and smoked pot—they sat on the wall separating the sand from the parking lot next to a creek that fed into the ocean. The kids at my new junior high had already acknowledged, in their snobby way, that The Flats, where I lived, was not a desirable neighborhood. So, I just said I lived off Rio Del Mar, a main boulevard that ran through town and to the beach. There was always a kid who inevitably and condescendingly asked, “You mean in The Flats?”
I’d stare back blankly and say yes because it would have been rude to say fuck off. I was trying to keep my labels to a minimum—I didn’t need to be “the foul-mouthed fag from The Flats”—“fag” was enough.
When we were still looking for a place to live, Al, Mom, and I had stayed in a cabin-style motel in the mountains. My sister, Renée, was still in Yuma. The cabin was cute, but we needed a house. I fell in love with the house Mom and I found. It was funky and by the beach. Renting it was more expensive than owning our house in Yuma; it was not as nice and less than half the size, but I never thought I would get to live in a modern-looking house so close to the beach. The sea air was good for Mom’s asthma, which had gotten better while other things had gotten worse. But Mom knew I loved the home, and she wanted to try something new, so we signed a lease.
The house was light-blue cinder block and rectangular with a flat roof. It had three small bedrooms and two small baths. There were three full-height 1960s frosted-glass windows in front and a side yard I could access from a sliding glass door in my bedroom. The front of the house was on one street, and the garage at the back of the house on another. Everything looked like a mix of Laugh-In and The Jetsons except for my mom’s Native American and Santa Fe decor—a style I was not fond of even when it was in our Spanish-style house in Yuma.
Al, my stepfather, thought the place was a dump; he didn’t get that there was something cool about it. Or that living close to the beach was a gift. He complained about the ugly house, the crappy neighborhood, and the fact that Mom couldn’t find a full-time teaching position.
He worked at a weapons manufacturer—Lockheed—close to San Jose. After Renée had finished her sophomore year in Yuma, she joined us and started her junior year at Aptos High School. She got a job at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, operating rides like a carny. Mom was doing clerical work that didn’t pay enough. It was only temporary, until the hiring freeze for teachers was over. She missed her former students and her job in Yuma. Every once in a while, she brought up Lupita, the third-grade student she used to visit when she finished her workday. Lupita had been sick and died from leukemia. I thought the loss of Lupita reminded Mom of the miscarriage she’d had before I was born—a lost daughter. I always wondered if I would have been born if Mom had two girls. I hoped Mom would get a teaching job, and that would make her happy. I figured Renée would continue being a high school carny until she graduated, and Al—I wanted Al gone.
To get to school, I either took the bus or walked. It was about three miles away from home and all uphill. It was a healthy walk filled with ocean air, tall pine trees, and large houses with landscaped lawns and Mercedes parked in the driveway that made me feel inadequate—I wondered what people did to afford to have such things. I either walked with two girls I’d met from the neighborhood, Michelle and Shannon, or by myself. Walking beat sitting on a school bus with kids I didn’t really know while I was stressed out from trying to fit in or disappear into the noise.
It was not easy for me to make friends at Aptos Junior High School. I was in seventh grade, and the students had already formed nearly impenetrable cliques. Most were rich white kids who packed Evian water in their lunches; the rest were lower-income Latino kids bussed in from Watsonville. I was white and poor—on the fringes of both groups. Of course, other things about me were more objectionable. During the first month, I disappeared during lunch by going into the office to call Mom. When I caught her at home, I could waste about ten minutes before I had to get off the phone and figure out where I could hide until fifth period. Usually, I just walked around looking like I had a destination. Mom never asked why I called; she just listened and carried on with our conversations. I always played it off as me checking up on her. On my lucky days, she brought me Taco Bell for lunch. Then she got a job, and the calls and Taco Bell lunches stopped.
The girls in California were more like women, and the guys were becoming men much faster than I was—I was a year younger than most. They were much more sophisticated than my friends in Yuma. Bottled water and carrot sticks for lunch were not what I had expected. I was happy with tacos and a Coke.
Before I started puberty, I took human growth hormones for over a year to help catch me up to my peers. But I was still small framed and had less-than-masculine ways. The runt who could at any moment be beaten into submission. But the social cues my peers gave me were enough to teach me my place. They used their words—“fag,” “sissy,” “pussy”—just loud enough for me to hear. They used their eyes to shame and to intimidate. And when they felt righteous, they asked, “Are you gay?” Or very righteous, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Then there was Tom—the douchebag surfer who had a pretty face, a tan, and well-toned body. He was not very smart and most definitely had emotional issues. He was a bleach-blonde-curly-haired manifestation of everything I feared—society’s hatred of me embodied in one dumb rich kid who was loud and aggressive.
Initially, I didn’t see him as a direct threat. I didn’t think he saw me. I also thought he might be gay. He seemed enamored with himself: perfectly groomed but like he hadn’t needed to groom and watchfully mannered in his behavior, always trying to look relaxed. But there was a twirling behind his eyes, like he was hiding something: a discomfort, a rage. I made my judgements using the same stereotypes everyone else used: his good looks, trendy clothes, and matching bracelet and necklace. Even I didn’t wear jewelry. But I did know what it was like to hide. I watched him with caution and curiosity, but beyond that, I really tried to ignore him because, even if he were gay, he still hung out with guys who looked equally aggressive, and I was sure Tom didn’t want them suspecting he might be gay. One day in class, I noticed him blankly staring at me, which made me uncomfortable in many different ways: Was he intrigued by me because maybe we were the same? Or did he just want to punch me in the face? When he was with his friends outside of class, he would often mad dog me while he nudged and whispered with his friends; I assumed he was making unfavorable comments about me. My existence definitely provoked him no matter how small I tried to make myself when I saw him. He always seemed to spot me.
I had a couple classes with him, one being gym. And, of course, I was assigned a locker near his. I would rush and try to change before he arrived or stall if he was there when I got to my locker, hoping he would finish changing by the time I started. If other guys were around, I had to be more protective of myself. I tried to wedge a couple of guys between us. That helped deter any questions he might ask me, like, “Are you looking at my dick?” He often stood too close to me and talked to the other guys about getting into fights and punching people in the face on the weekends, trying to intimidate me, provoke me, or just get me to look at him so that he could sear his eyes into me. If we were alone in our row, it was much less threatening. He would say, “Excuse me,” to pass by, and linger while he was dressing, not using his towel to cover himself like he did when other guys were around. He would face me but not look at me. Expose his penis while he put his shirt on and packed his bag. That made me dress and leave faster.
One day in math class, Tom was moved to the seat behind me for talking. After I correctly answered a question, he leaned into my ear and gently whispered, “Good answer, faggot.” My body tensed when I realized I was his primary prey, not just one of many I assumed he stalked. I leaned forward as though I was brushing him off, but I was scared, more scared than ever. From then on, I avoided him at all costs. He never hit me, but to remind me he could, he often looked at me and made a fist. He bumped into me if he was near me when we entered or exited the classroom. I never reported him—I feared things would get worse. His gaggle of friends were only slightly less threatening versions of him, and like me, also afraid of him—they were all happy for me to have his attention. Eventually, Tom got a girlfriend who liked me and thought I was funny, and he had to find another target. I still avoided him.
I eventually made a friend named Michael. He was thin and blonde and clean. He lived up the hill from me in a beautiful two-story Spanish-style home with ocean views from the top floor. He had a family who had what others pretended to possess—money. His mom stayed home and drove a shiny Audi and did yoga. She cooked food that I knew was fancy: prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe and arugula pear salad with goat cheese, food I never saw made in my house. She once came to pick Michael up at my home after one of our sleepovers. I hoped she would stay in the entryway, but she stepped into my living room. I watched her look over the house: its original fixtures—dated to her—and furnishings that did not go with its design. Things not properly placed by a professional. The shame of not measuring up washed over me. I could no longer hide from her that my mom was not fancy like her and that I didn’t fit into her son’s world.
Michael was my friend for only a short while after that. Our friendship died out when I couldn’t join him for the surf lessons at the beach or the ski trips to Tahoe. It was too hard to be different from him in so many ways I couldn’t control. Maybe he realized that I wasn’t like him—that I didn’t have wealthy parents. Perhaps he heard what kids said at school—that my funny ways weren’t just comical. Maybe he didn’t want to be guilty by association. I don’t know. We didn’t verbalize any of it; we just parted ways.
In eighth grade, I met Josh. He looked like a tanner version of me with slightly lighter hair. He lived with his single mom on a flower farm just south of Aptos, overlooking the Pacific. He held up his gold necklace with a star charm and asked if I knew that people would kill him just for wearing “this necklace.” Even though I preferred silver, I couldn’t imagine some people hated gold so much they would kill Josh for wearing it.
“Why would someone kill you for wearing a gold necklace?”
“Because,” he said, “this a Star of David. It means that I’m Jewish.”
“So?” I replied. I had no idea what he was talking about, killing Josh for being Jewish. I mean, I wasn’t dumb. I knew one Jewish girl in Yuma; everyone seemed to like her. At Christmas, she taught our fourth-grade class about Hanukkah, and honestly, celebrating with food and gifts for eight nights sounded better than one morning of gifts and pretending to glorify Jesus. We all knew Santa Claus was the real savior. But kill Josh—my God, that was a bit much.
“Neo-Nazis. They’ll still want to kill Jewish people,” he said. Yes—I had learned about Nazis, Germany, the Holocaust, and World War II in history class, but this was America and almost the end of the 1980s. I didn’t realize that people were still that stupid and hateful—unless I was their target.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s insane. I didn’t know Nazis still existed.” It didn’t completely register with me. “I didn’t know there were still people who hated Jewish people.” I concluded Josh still had to look out for Nazis, and I still had to look out for Tom.
I also concluded that my California beach life was not quite what I had imagined “California Dreaming” to be. I was becoming more of an outcast than I’d been in Yuma, and I was always on guard against potential teenage violence. Mom was depressed; she wasn’t teaching. And Al was always complaining about money and making snide comments about me. I tried to make it one day at a time.
After school, I usually stayed in the safety of my neighborhood. Sometimes, the other kids from The Flats and I jumped on the bus and went to the mall in Capitola or to downtown Santa Cruz. Sometimes, I went to Josh’s, where I could just be his friend, and his mom would make us macaroni and cheese sprinkled with parmesan before we played video games or walked in the flower fields. I saw that living with a single mom didn’t have to mean a life of struggle; there could be peace. But usually, I hung out at Michelle’s house. She lived about four doors down from our garage. At school, I didn’t talk much to her or the other girls from the neighborhood. I kept our relationships in the safety of The Flats. I didn’t want them to be harassed for being friends with me.
I found peace in the chaos of Michelle’s home and spent many afternoons in her latchkey surroundings. Her house was always dirty and redolent of pee—her younger brothers’ room reeked like a urinal and made the house smell like the whiff of air you catch when men exit a public toilet. They had a green bird that squawked when you walked up the stairs from the front door to the living room, and Michelle repeatedly screamed at it to shut up before she threw a sheet over its cage. For dinners she always made generic macaroni and cheese. Sometimes, she threw in peas to add something green. Being there made me feel like my family was sophisticated and took my mind off whatever was happening at my house and in my life.
I would sit at the table in Michelle’s dining room and watch her 409 her stove and Mop & Glo the kitchen linoleum that would never shine. She had beautiful skin and delicate bone structure. She had long, brown hair with a spiral perm that was six inches grown out. She wore the generic version of whatever clothing was trendy. She was the kind of girl who could have been prettier than she was if her mom had offered more guidance—instead, Michelle made do and never looked refined. I related: my mom didn’t care about style or dress-up; I had Wanny for that. Michelle made decent grades. If she escaped her parents’ paths, she would make something of herself. If she didn’t, she would wind up doing what she was doing, not for her brothers but for her own kids.
Michelle’s parents looked like people from the 1970s and drove cars from the 1970s. They smoked strong cigarettes and drank cheap beer and tried to hide their pot smoking from their kids. They didn’t seem to have adult schedules like my parents did, so Michelle was in charge of her younger brothers after school. I thought her dad was in some sort of construction and went to drink with friends after work. Her mom was a bartender at a dive bar but had started serving on a grand jury. Michelle talked about her mom’s jury duty like her mom had a career change. I sometimes wanted to point out that jury duty was not a career even after two months. I could feel myself get angry that my bilingual mother, with her degree and certifications, no longer had her career, but Michelle went on about her mom doing her civic duty when the only qualification was being called in for service. I stayed silent; I let her think what she wanted to feel good. I guess that was Michelle’s moment to have a mom with a job she was proud of, so I went along with it. As much as I liked Michelle, her mess of a family made me feel like my family’s life was a little more under control than it was, and I rationalized that my problems weren’t so bad, because ours were temporary.
One day, while I was watching Michelle clean her kitchen, her little brother ran in and told me, “Trey, your mom’s out front.” He said she was in her car and wanted to talk to me. My body tensed, and I reminded myself to breathe. My mom was not the type of mother to come to get me if I was at a friend’s, so I went outside immediately. I suspected that something bad had happened between her and Al.
She sat in her red convertible Mustang. She had the passenger window rolled down; I leaned on the car door and poked my head in. Mom’s eyes were bloodshot, and she had our dog, Missy, with her, so I figured she wasn’t going to the store.
“I’m going for a drive,” she said. “I love you.” She seemed upset; something wasn’t right.
“Can I go with you?” I asked. Missy walked across the seat and gave me a kiss.
“I’m just going for a drive. I need to be by myself,” she said, uncharacteristically stern. I concluded she was upset and had just had a fight with Al.
“I want to go with you,” I said. I tried not to acknowledge my fear. I wasn’t registering why she wanted to be alone. It wasn’t like her.
“I’m just going for a drive. I love you.”
I had seen her act this way only once, after arguing with Al, but this was different. The stillness in her body was different. Her separation from me was different. Mom usually wanted me along for the distraction or to vent or to fantasize about what life could be like without him. Since Missy was with her, I tried to shake off my fears and convince myself she really was just going for a drive. “I love you,” I said. It was a statement and a plea. She drove off, and the rumble of the V8 engine faded as I went back up the stairs into Michelle’s to watch her finish cleaning a kitchen that would never be clean.
I didn’t want to go home if Al was there alone, especially not after Mom and he had had a fight. Before we moved to Santa Cruz, there was a car ride with Mom, Renée, and me. Mom broke the news that she and Al might be divorcing. She informed us that money would be tight: we would have to sell the house, the Mustang, the motorcycles, and buy fewer name-brand clothes—go back to the way things were before she married Al. I loved the things we had acquired, but only because they had grown familiar. I liked the idea of just Mom, Renée, and me. I never really understood why I disliked Al so much. He helped Mom provide for us, he worked long hours, he took a second job when he needed to, and he cared for Mom—when they weren’t fighting. Maybe it was the general disinterest he had shown when we first met. I knew he resented me; he was jealous of the closeness Mom and I shared. I knew he hated that I was not more of a guy’s guy—that I couldn’t swing a bat or throw a pass. He hated that I preferred things that were pretty and things that made me laugh. But still, he was decent.
I once screamed at Al, “You’re not my dad!” when he tried to ground me. Another time, he spanked me on our porch after I twisted and bit a boy when he and his blonde sister attacked me as I tried to roller-skate. Mom yelled at Al attempting to ground me for that. And like with my biological father, Travis, she would not let him hit me. She set me free from any restrictions both times.
But Mom didn’t leave him after that car ride. Instead, we moved to California.
A couple of hours after Mom stopped by Melissa’s, I went home, hoping she was back home. I wanted to avoid Al and any lingering anger in the house. I went into my bedroom through my sliding glass door, my usual way into the house. Al was gone; Renée was still at work at the Boardwalk, and Mom was nowhere to be found. The only thing welcoming me home was an envelope sitting on my bed with Mom’s handwriting addressed to “Trey and Renée."
Dear Trey and Renée,
Honey, I love you and Renée more than anything in life. You have both
been my life. I’m proud of you both.
Don’t ever feel bad or guilty about me. You haven’t ever done anything wrong.
I just can’t see any way out of this mess that I seem to keep making. Trey,
promise me that no matter what happens to me that you will never live
Promise me to stay and live with Wanny and Aunt Skeeter until you’re
grown. Stay close to Al, as he does love you.
I’m so proud to have you and Renée as my children. I love you both very much.
Be happy and make something of your life.
My breath stopped, then hastened. “Hello,” I called out as loudly as I could into the empty house, hoping someone was home but just hadn’t heard me. “Hello? Mom? Al?” I stuck my head into the hallway. “Hello?” No one was home. I looked at the letter again, thinking I must have missed something—misunderstood its meaning.
I wasn’t sure what mess Mom was referring to; our life was not great, but I thought things were getting better. I thought that was the whole reason we’d moved to California. I was struggling to survive day to day, but no one knew that but me. Mom was sick and was having a hard time finding a teaching job, but a lot of people were sick and couldn’t find the job they wanted. They eventually got well, and they found work. They didn’t leave scary notes for their children. I didn’t understand what was going on. Why hadn’t I known things were more terrible than I realized? Were there things I wasn’t being told? I questioned myself and everything I knew as time stopped and raced.
I ran to the phone with my breath held tightly in my lungs while clinging to my last piece of Mom, her note. I called Renée at work. “I need to speak to Renée Burnette. It’s an emergency,” I told the receptionist.
“Log Ride, this is Renée.”
“Renée, you need to come home. It’s Mom. I don’t know—just come home—quick.” I couldn’t really explain to Renée what was going on with Mom, because I didn’t honestly know or understand the facts. The information was vague and not registering. I was panicking. Next, I called Wanny and Skeeter and read them the letter. I told them that Mom and Al had been fighting. Then I told them, “I’ll call you back when Renée or Al gets home.” I went back to the safety of my room, to the letter—the only clue.
Kneeling against my bed, I prayed. Dear God, I don’t know what is happening, and I don’t know what my mom is doing. Just protect her, please. I will be perfect if you bring her home. I will get good grades. I won’t fight with Renée. I won’t be gay; I’m sorry. I can be bisexual. Okay, I will be straight, and I will have a wife and kids—just bring back my mom. I love her more than anything. Amen. I lifted my head up and sat against my bed, and everything settled as much as it could in my twelve-year-old brain. Tears ran down my face and down my neck and soaked in the cotton collar of my T-shirt as I tried to accept I might never see my mom again.
Renée came through the front door, and I ran to her. She read the letter. Within minutes, Al came home. All the appropriate calls were made, and in the morning, Wanny was on the first flight from Southern California.
Wanny was five feet two and a half inches tall and a perfect size zero with short, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair. She always wore high heels and always had a matching handbag. The smile on her face said she would get us through this, but her eyes told me she was just as worried as I was. Wanny cooked and prayed and offered some sense of motherly normalcy in Mom’s absence.
Two nights passed. I had almost given up hope and acknowledged that my life was forever changed in a way I hadn’t seen coming. I figured I would move away from Al, and Renée and I would live with Wanny and Skeeter in Riverside. Mom would have an unknown, new life and maybe find what she thought she wanted. Or possibly there would be no new life if she was going to kill herself. Either way, Mom didn’t think I was worth staying around for. I felt my sadness change into anger. Then, numbness began to calm me. Maybe it was better if Mom went on with her life, or death. If she could throw me away so easily, I didn’t think I wanted anything to do with her. I didn’t get the choice anyway; it was her choice, and she could already be dead.
In the morning, Wanny made us breakfast. The phone rang, and we all rushed to it. Al answered—Mom was in a hotel up the coast.
The hotel sat in the overcast morning on a cliff overlooking the Pacific in a town north of Santa Cruz, not far from San Francisco. In the distance, seagulls squawked, and the waves crashed before gliding onto the sand. It would have been beautiful if we were there for leisure. Al, Wanny, Renée, and I found our way up to Mom’s room. Al knocked politely.
Mom opened the door to room 207. Quiet. Ashamed. Her wrists were swollen with red slashes that looked like she had been clawed by a spooked cat. Her short, black hair was uncombed. Her clothes were worn. She stood partially behind the door when she opened it. She let us pass. Missy, whose face resembled Goldie Hawn’s, joyfully greeted us and looked at us like we were crazy for not joining them sooner in the ocean-view room. I gave my mother a hug. “I love you,” I said, even though I wanted to leave her behind now that I knew she was okay.
“I love you too,” she said.
The room was disheveled. The bed was not made, and there were empty prescription bottles and blood-soiled towels on the dresser and bathroom counter. There were used Kleenex and an empty Coke can on the nightstand. Wanny took Renée and me to the lobby. Al and Mom gathered her things and checked out of the hotel by the sea.
A few minutes later, under the glowing lights of a nearby Denny’s, my Super Bird and french fries looked florescent. My family sat in a circular booth, pretending to forget what we had seen in the hotel room. Wanny was a Christian who went to a Baptist church, and when she visited, we got religious. She led the blessing in a quiet and merciful voice: “Our Lord in Heaven, we ask you to bless this meal. We ask that you be with us in our time of need.” Her slight Texas twang grounded her in the prayer and pulled me in. “We thank you for Moo’s safety, and we ask that you watch over us as we return home. In Jesus’s name, amen.”
I was both thankful for Wanny’s hope and angry at her for relying on a god who was unreliable. If Jesus cared, don’t you think he would have prevented this? And if Mom cared, she would not have driven off without me. I sat across from Mom, between Wanny and Renée. I did not look at her, and except to ask for ketchup, I did not speak.
We stood up after a mostly uneaten breakfast. Mom stood at the edge of the table as I got out of the booth. “I love you,” she said. “You can’t be mad at me.” She lifted my chin, forcing me to look her in the eyes. “Trey," she said. Her voice was filled shame, regret, and the wish for forgiveness I could not give her.
She embraced me, and I broke in her arms.
“If you love me, why would you do this?” I asked. How would you feel if I ran off, if I tried to kill myself, leaving you to think about my death?
“This isn’t about you,” she said. But it was about me. It was about me almost losing my mother. It was about a child who needed his mother. “I love you,” she said again.
Al, Mom, and Missy got into his truck. Renée drove Wanny and me in the
Mustang. We took Mom to the hospital, where she would spend the next week. Then we went home, still without Mom.
When Mom got home from the hospital, we bought her a puppy, Sneakers. He was a happy distraction from the pain and a friend for Missy. Wanny stayed a bit longer, but returned to her life in Southern California. I returned to pretending I was fine.
Trey Burnette, a writer and photographer, has an MFA from the University of California at Riverside at Palm Desert in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. His areas of study were nonfiction and screenwriting. He also studied comedy writing with The Groundlings and The Second City in Los Angeles. He is querying his memoir, I Hear You’re Funny, expanded from his one-man play, Rim of the World, performed at the Powerhouse Theatre in Los Angeles. Trey has written two comedy pilots, Here You Are and Naughty Darlings, and served as the Nonfiction Editor for The Coachella Review. He has a BA in psychology from the University of Southern California. He has also written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and his photography is forthcoming in The Sun Magazine.