The summer after I finished third grade, when I was nine, we were living in a mansion owned by The Community. The Community entrusted it to Sister Helen as a caretaker, and we were all allowed to move in too. It was a Tudor home with seven bedrooms, two staircases, a sun porch (converted to a chapel), a huge yard with its own koi pond, and a detached two-car-garage. We were lucky to be living there. But true to tradition, a year after we moved in, the rug was pulled out from under us. A bunch of monks were moving in and we were moving out, this time to an abandoned boarding school complex that was once run by nuns. The upside was that another family, in addition to Sister Helen, was going to move there with us – and they had two girls that were around Alyson’s and my age. It would be like having a sleepover EVERY night! That almost took the sting out of moving for the ninth time in nine years.
We met our soon-to-be-roomies, The Bratmans, shortly after we started packing. They had moved to Steubenville from North Carolina, and Mom and Sister Helen met them at a prayer meeting. (Total Jesus Freaks, of course). The husband and wife were David and Judy, and we found out that Judy (a Brooklyn Jew who’d drunk the Catholic Kool-Aid) had homeschooled their daughters since, like, birth. The older daughter, Rebecca, was Alyson’s age, and Joanna was a year younger than me. The girls seemed nice enough, but right away we could tell they were . . . different. For one thing, they talked weird, like they’d walked straight out of a Jane Austen novel. They said “shall” and “shan’t,” must and mustn’t, “I dare say,” “I beg your pardon,” and other stilted, British-sounding phrases. (I had never actually heard a real, live, American human kid use the exclamation “pshaw!” in a sentence before I met the Bratmans, and I’m guessing I never will again). So beyond being book-wormish to the point of actually morphing into the 19th century heroines they were reading about, the girls were totally and ridiculously sheltered.
Now, here I have to say that a lot of kids would’ve considered me sheltered too, given that I was living in a house with an uber-religious mother who occasionally dressed like a nun, along with a woman who was an ACTUAL nun; and we went to church every single day (not just Sundays, because, you know, EVERY day is the Lord’s Day); and we didn’t own a television (the Devil’s Playground disguised as a shiny, talking box); and we spent all our spare time with monks, priests, and college students who were either praying to Jesus, talking about Jesus, talking about praying to Jesus, or praying about talking to Jesus. I went to Catholic school five days a week, and you would think that would be the most sheltering aspect of all, but if you think that, you didn’t go to Catholic school. Catholic-school-kids are just as delinquent as your average public school kid, and in some cases, even more so. These cases are so sick of their parents sheltering them all the time, they actually develop a magnetic field of attraction to cussing, perusing pornographic materials, shoplifting, smoking, visiting the Bases, and generally going out of their way to violate all of God’s Commandments. By the time I was nine, I had been exposed to all of the aforementioned crimes against religious humanity, except the one about the Bases, so I was in prime position to give the Bratmans a new sort of education. But that would come a little later.
After our house was packed up, and the Bratmans packed up whatever cave they were living in, we moved into our new home. Upon first sight, it resembled more like an enormously long trailer, with no back-end in sight, and its painted white wood siding was chipped and beaten by time and weather. It was surrounded by other buildings just like it, but those buildings, the old boarding school classrooms, would remain abandoned. We were to live in the building that used to be the school’s living quarters, since it had a kitchen, bathrooms, and at least a dozen dorm-style bedrooms that were scattered on both ends of a never-ending hallway. When we walked into our new home, the first thing I noticed was a dank, clay, basement kind of smell; a musty smell that, historically, I’d always kind of liked. (I was an odd child). However, the scent was mixed with something else, the pungent odor of animal urine, which I immediately guessed belonged to a cat. When we entered the long, dark hallway, my mom was quick to steer us away from stepping in the little piles of pellet-like poop that ran the length of the building, until it dawned on me that not cats, but things that RHYMED with cats, were inhabiting the home.
David Bratman, leading the procession, hushed all of our feminine exclamations and rodent panic.
“They are God’s creatures too,” he admonished us, in his soft, lilting voice. “But I will remove them without causing them harm, don’t worry.” I stayed quiet, imagining David leading a Rat Exodus like Moses parting the Red Sea for the Israelites, but what I really wanted to say is I didn’t give a Rat’s Ass if they were God’s creatures or not! Rat Genocide would suit me just fine AND give me less nightmares. I kept my mouth shut though, and we trudged along the red, shag, rat-shit-bedotted carpet until we found our rooms. There was nothing remarkable in ours except it was very large, had lots of windows but no doors, and led into another large room that had a full bathroom. It was in its own “wing” of the building, and was next door to a humungous room that contained a stage and a dusty old organ. Glancing out the windows, I caught a glimpse of tennis courts, with weeds growing through the many cracks in the green painted cement.
“Are those OUR tennis courts?” I asked excitedly. (Not that I played, mind you. My hand-eye coordination always was and always will be crap).
“Oh, yes,” my mother gushed. Having grown up privileged enough to belong to tennis and golf clubs herself, she had always wanted the same for us. She took on the dreamy voice that told us she was likening yet another dump to a Barbie Dream House every little girl would want to grow up in. “We have tennis courts, our own greenhouse, a piano room with a stage, an acre of land to roam, and best of all, a huge classroom for your school!”
“Wait, what? Our school? We’re going to stay home for school?” Alyson asked hopefully. We’d thought this move meant we’d be starting all over again in a new school, something we’d done countless times before. After painful months of striving to be included into any clique that would accept two new kids whose mom dressed like a nun, we were on our way to another “new beginning,” as our mother phrased it. That beginning was Home School.
After we got settled into our new digs, the rat poop was cleaned up, the pee smell was almost eliminated, and the rats had mostly disappeared. (I’m still not sure how). We soon got acclimated to our new school-day routine. Breakfast, followed by three hours in the classroom with Judy teaching Science, Math, Spelling/Reading; lunch followed by some playtime outdoors; and another three hours of studies which included Art, Music, and Hebrew lessons. Sister Helen taught the Art portion – she was a really talented artist. Ever since we’d known her, she’d been teaching private art and pottery lessons, or lessons at rec centers, and that’s how she was able to eke out a living for herself. Judy played guitar, so she taught Music (which basically just consisted of cheeseball folk songs like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”). Judy also taught the Hebrew lessons, where we practiced writing and learning the Hebrew alphabet—a total mind-blower for someone with limited thinking skills.
During recess or after school hours, we got plenty of time to roam around outside, sometimes exploring the other school buildings, the tennis courts, or the eerie, empty greenhouse. These were prime occasions for giving Rebecca and Joanna my own sort of home school, which could’ve also been dubbed “Profanity 101.” I taught them every curse word I knew, claiming they were Ohio colloquialisms, but instead of conveying to the girls each word’s actual meaning, I made up more entertaining definitions. For instance, “shit” was another word for someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend, e.g., “I am sooo lucky! My shit took me to the movies last night!” “Damn” was a synonym for the word “treasure,” e.g., “I discovered gold coins, rubies, and emeralds in this Damn Chest!” A “bitch” was a type of ice cream topping, as in: “I’d like a double scoop of chocolate ice cream topped with bitches and whipped cream, please!” Since the girls already knew from the nativity story that “ass” was another word for “donkey,” I was kind enough to impart to them that an “asshole” was a place to keep your donkey or farm animals, similar to a barn or stable. For example, “The donkeys and horses settled down to sleep in their asshole.” The girls listened with rapt attention and suspected no tomfoolery, even when I occasionally stifled a snort of laughter or my sister Alyson tried to shut me up by elbowing me. Since my lessons were really for my own amusement, I never thought too deeply about them coming back to bite ME in the asshole. Until one day, they did.
We’d been living with the Bratmans for about six months, and in that time, all four of us girls started getting on each other’s nerves. It turned out that the Bratman sisters very much lived up to the first syllable of their last name. They could be rude, spiteful, and arrogant, though very careful to keep their ‘tudes under wraps when the adults were around. Their parents thought they were angels, and so whenever there was an argument among the girls, the natural conclusion was that I started it. That probably had something to do with the fact that I had a horrific temper and zero lack of self-control, but still! It wasn’t fair that those twits never got in trouble when they were instigating the fights seventy-five percent of the time. I could see that the Bratmans were getting on my mom’s nerves too, because she would frown and set her lips in a tight white line whenever Judy or David would go off on their pulpits, explaining how their daughters were innocently and sweetly incapable of purposely annoying the hell out of another human being.
One fateful day, something magical happened. Something that would eventually lead to the undoing of our living situation with the Bratmans. It was a weekday, so we were in home school, drawing animals in Art class. Sister Helen had walked out of the room, so Joanna felt free to be her jerky self. She kept snickering at the alien-looking spotted blobs I was drawing, with pointy ears and long tails. (They were supposed to be cows. To this day, I still haven’t managed to advance my art skills above a preschool level). Anywho. Joanna was the one who was always getting praised for her advanced artwork, so it was very un-Christian-like for her to be making fun of those less fortunate.
“I can’t believe you’re OLDER than me and you draw like that,” she jeered as I drew a square with a triangle on top of it for a barn. She didn’t notice Sister Helen walking back into the room behind her. “And what’s that supposed to be, an ASSHOLE? You couldn’t even fit one of your weird cows into that little asshole!”
Sister Helen’s face turned bright red, her mouth dropped wide open, and (kickin’ it old school) she grabbed Joanna by the ear and yanked her out of her chair. She dragged her out of the room, presumably to report her vulgarity to her parents, and all I could hear were the echoes of Joanna’s confused protests as she was pulled further and further away. Rebecca ran out of the room after them, leaving Alyson and I alone. I sat for a moment in stunned silence before exploding into uncontrollable laughter, doubling over and nearly falling out of my seat. Alyson interrupted my delicious, vengeful fit of hilarity with an ominous, accurate, sing-song prediction: “You’rrre gonnnna beee in troubbbbbbble.”
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