The House on Sumner
Why did you have to grow up so fast?
Maybe if you didn’t ask all of the questions that you did or maybe if you went to school more often and hung around people your age, and maybe if you didn’t know the acronyms SNAP or EBT or DSS or CDTA or CPS before you knew your ABC’s, then you would’ve had more time between the playground and the Alphabet carpet.
This isn’t to say that you’ve never felt like a kid, because you have. Like on Sumner Ave, for example. You were the purest form of ‘kid’ there than you’ve ever been. Even though, by the age of 9, you had seen too many things, moved too many times, skipped too many meals, been held too closely by an older man, been left too many times. But somehow still, when you moved into that red brick house in the middle of the block, you were able to be a kid for a little while.
You probably can’t remember if you had already started the school year somewhere else, or if it was a September move. But your third-grade year would be taught by Mrs. Rodriguez at Paige Elementary school. Paige was different than the other schools you had gone to; you knew that. It was located in Niskayuna, the nicer part of Schenectady county. You were only allowed to go there because the apartment on Sumner Ave was directly on the Schenectady/Niskayuna line. You could’ve gone back to Zoller, it was close enough, and you would go back for fourth and fifth grade anyway, but you didn’t for third for some reason. Maybe by this point, you were so used to switching that it was normal.
You switched schools and started new, a fresh start. The bus stop was located right at the end of the block, and you took pride in walking down the street alone, the first school you’d attend without Mikey. He was on to middle school and have never gone to Paige Elementary. There were no older siblings to warn the teachers of what might’ve been to come when having a McLean in their class since Amanda or Brittany had never gone to Paige either. Nobody to warn the school staff of the unexcused absences, or headlice infestations, or bounced field trip checks.
While mostly everything about starting at Paige was new, one thing was a surprising familiarity: Adam. The previous winter, Mom started working for Adam’s mom to aid one of her older kids, who was disabled. Mom didn’t always have a job, but when she did, she was good at it until she wasn’t. She always had a way with bosses and would get away with a lot. She’d often bring you and Mikey to work with her to Adam’s mom’s house. While she cared for Adam’s older brother, who couldn’t walk or talk or eat by himself, Adam, Mikey and you played. You built snow forts in the backyard and had snowball fights. They’d team up you, you’d cry, and mom would tell you to play nice. You also played superheroes, jumping down the basement stairs with Adam’s old capes, scared to hurt yourself but happily willing. Adam’s aunt even took you and Mikey to see your first movie theater experience: The Incredibles! I can’t remember when exactly mom stopped working for Adam’s mom, and I don’t know exactly why it ended, but I’ve always had a bit of an idea. You’ve always had a bit of an idea.
You know that mom meant well, but she liked to push limits and take more than what’s offered. You know that when you tried to talk to Adam in class at Paige the way you’d talk to him at his house, you felt a lingering cloud hanging over, whispering that he knew where you really came from. You know that when you saw Adam’s mom at the school concert and gave her the biggest smile, she gave you a small smirk and a glare over. And I know that you knew, even in third grade, that there was nothing you could do to change the way people would see you.
But still, on Sumner Ave, you were a kid. And Mikey too. You drove with mom and Mikey to his little league baseball games in Mom’s greenish-blue new (used) Saturn. You’d fight in the backseat all the way there and cheer him on in-between chasing foul balls to exchange them for free ice pops from the concession stand. On the way home, mom would stop for McDonald’s, your favorite, and you’d eat it in the car even though she’d yell at you not to, with your chicken nuggets and spilled barbeque sauce. The one- and only-time mom participated in a school field trip, she was assigned to drive you and two other classmates to Proctor’s Theater, one of Schenectady’s crown jewels. You thought it was weird, why didn’t they get a school bus? You were nervous that mom would embarrass you, that she’d wear dirty clothes and yell at them for accidentally stepping on the seat and answer a phone call while driving and tell obvious lies. But when Ryan, your crush, asked if he could eat his pack of pringles in the car, she said yes. Mom ended up selling the Saturn not long after we got it to pay off an old landlord from suing; You went with her when she drove it to Albany, exchanged it for $800, and took the bus home.
But not having a car on Sumner Ave didn’t bother you. Sure, it meant that mom couldn’t drive you to the bus stop and wait with you on cold mornings or drive you to school when you missed the bus entirely. But you were happy with your world being one block wide. You spent hours upon hours each day outside, so much so that mom would yell your name out of the front upstairs window that it was time for you and Mikey to come inside, to which you’d both respond “5 more minutes!” and then run down the block, knowing damn well she wasn’t about to chase you.
You made friends with the neighbors fast, something you’ve learned to be good at. Erica lived across the street and two houses to the left, and she was in fourth grade. Tessa was right next store to the right, and she was in fifth. You spent a lot of time at both of their houses and learned that although both of their families had more money and stability than yours, they were both just as chaotic and dysfunctional as yours, albeit in different ways.
But none of that mattered. Not when you were playing Bratz dolls or running a lemonade/chocolate milk stand, not when you were playing neighborhood hide-and-seek with ten or more kids, having so much fun that you peed your pants in your hiding spot instead of taking a break to run home, risking mom saying it was time to come in. And it certainly didn’t matter when all of the kids would gather at Sally’s house, an older, chain-smoking lesbian living four doors down. Sally had a basketball hoop in her yard and was always hosting friends. Her friends would often bring their kids, and Sally’s house turned into the hangout. Or maybe it was already the hangout, and you and Mikey just joined late. Either way, you were always welcomed at Sally’s. She’d give you snacks and sodas and cards to play games with, and make sure you were doing okay.
When you weren’t at Sally’s, you were at Stacy’s. Stacy was married to Bill, and they lived with their foster kid, Dillon. Dillon became your friend rather quickly, but it’s Stacy that you really enjoyed being around. You and Dillon would often get fake married, and Stacy would help you get dressed up. She’d officiate the ceremony, and even let you kiss, knowing that you and Dillon didn’t actually like each other in that way. Stacy was nice to all the neighborhood kids, often hosting sleepovers for the girls, letting you put on fashion shows with her clothes, followed by yoga, followed by a movie with loads of snacks. She’d make sure everyone was invited to all of Dillon’s parties, and let you all help her bake cookies with your dirt-covered, scraped up hands.
And there was the one time when you were playing outside, and she called you over, sat you down on the curb, and began brushing your hair. At first, you were mad, how embarrassing, you wanted to keep playing with your friends, you hated brushing your hair, mom already tried to get the knots out…But you sat and sat, and she brushed and brushed. I’m sure you hated it at the time. I’m sure it hurt, and I’m sure Stacy had better things to do than to brush through a rat’s nest, but still, she did it. When she finally finished, she showed you. You liked it, loved it, your stringy hair now able to get back to its natural bounce, now able to fly behind you when you ride your bike back and forth down the block without holding the handlebars.
Mikayla McLean is a nonfiction writer and musician. She is currently working towards earning an MFA in creative writing at Chapman University, after completing her undergraduate degree in English at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. Mikayla’s non fiction writing is often focused on her childhood, where she explores heavy topics like poverty, sexual assault, childhood obesity, abandonment, and puberty. Her song writing explores heartbreak, love, anxiety, loss, happiness, etc. Learn more about her writing career by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and see her music endeavors on instagram @mikmclean, or on iTunes/Spotify by searching “Mikayla McLean, “What To Do”.