I thought foster care was a secluded facility that housed hundreds of juvenile delinquents in dirty, stone floored cells. When the Carmel colored lady who called herself “Grace, your social Worker” led me up an overgrown pathway to a tiny white house, I was confused. She knocked on the door, a hollow sound in the after-hours quiet of the neighborhood. It opened, and I was face to face with “Betty, your foster Mother, but please call me Aunty.”
She was short, and pale with wild, grey curls that lay moist against the rolls of her neck. “My daughter, Brittany” was sitting at a small round kitchen table, that was set with plates of spaghetti for three. Only one plate had not been touched. She pulled out the chair for me and told me to start eating because we were going to the church Fall Festival in a couple minutes. I took off my backpack and gripped it between my legs under the table. My skirt folded with it and made it look like I was wearing pants. Grace was still talking with Betty and the two of them were making frequent glances in our direction.
Brittany slurped her spaghetti loudly, unashamedly, barely chewing and wiping her hands on her jeans like it was her house. She had at least five piercings on one ear, and a nose ring. Her hair was in two braids. Not the French braids that the white girls at Churchill wore on game days, but cornrows; somehow, they made her look less white. She nodded towards my backpack, “You can put that up in our room if you want.”
“No, that’s ok.” I clutched my bag tighter between my legs and choked down a forkful of cold, meatless spaghetti, my head flooded involuntarily with the claustrophobic image of “our room.”
“So, are you Muslim or something?” She was looking at my scarf.
“No, Apostolic. This is how we dress.”
“The skirt too?”
“I never saw any Apostolic people in foster care.”
I realized then that the house was foster care. I was, sitting at a white woman’s table, next to a white girl I never met, eating white spaghetti noodles with no meat, in a white house that I was now supposed to call home.
Betty dropped Brittany and I off for the Fall Festival at their Presbyterian church. The night was cool and silent around the lit parking lot. Stations were set up for pumpkin smashing, face painting, food, and apple bobbing. Brittany found a group of friends and went off with them.
As I shuffled around, I was acutely aware of the guilt I felt for being in that place. My family would never allow me to attend a pagan event such as this. On Halloween, we closed the curtains and laid on our bellies around the radio in Tina’s room, listening to Adventures in Odyssey, trying to convince ourselves that we were having more fun than the kids outside who ran around the neighborhood with pillowcases of candy.
Suddenly, a pain I was not used to bubbled up and escaped in a steady current of tears that could not be controlled with the cuff of my sleeve. I was aware of my feet, the heaviness of them, and the stockings that had fallen and bagged around my ankles. I could feel the length of my skirt and the contrast between it and the butt-tight pants that the other girls wore. I was supposed to be at home right now, dunking Tina’s hair in the tub, washing it and braiding it for school tomorrow.
Dodging the scattered groups of pumpkin smashing, candy corn eating teenagers, I ran to the bathroom with my backpack beating me against my butt. It was big. I turned the corner and found Brittany sitting on the counter, swinging her legs. A sharp dark-skinned girl with long braids was cross-legged on the floor, picking at something on her jeans; next to her, an olive-skinned girl with boy-short, purple hair.
I tried to act as if I came in by accident, but Brittany saw my face.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing, I’m fine. I was looking for…”
“Keisha, this is Leslie. My foster sister, they just brought her today.”
Keisha looked me up and down with a look on her face that matched most closely to the thought: prove it. She told me to sit down. The floor looked clean enough, so I did.
“Why you in foster care?”
I stuttered, then shocked myself and started to cry again. Brittany hopped down from the counter and hugged me. The foreign space between us made her get back on the counter and wait for someone else to talk.
The olive- skinned girl was Marcella. She had on the shortest shorts I had ever seen. She held her knees to her chest and I had to look at the floor to avoid seeing all of God’s gifts to her. She said, “My dad raped me and stuff. I been in Foster care for six years.”
Keisha stood up and started messing around with her hair in the mirror. She spoke flatly. “I’ve been in the system longer than all ‘yall.”
“What happened to you?” I asked her.
“Raped. At least that’s what they say. I don’t remember it.” She flipped her braids behind her back and pulled them up into a ponytail.
Marcella laughed. A low, gurgle of a laugh, accompanied with tight eyes. “Man, everybody here been Raped. Dicks are active as fuck in Montgomery County.”
Brittany, who had been watching me the whole time, with her hands dipping in and out of a bag of Doritos, took one and threw it at Marcella. “What does that even mean?”
“’Xactly what I said. Active as fuck. Everybody wants to fuck, fuck, fuck round here!”
The door to the bathroom opened and an Uggs-wearing freckle-faced girl with a pony-tail and green cardigan waltzed in towards the stalls. As if we silently agreed she was to innocent for this conversation, we all got up, dusted our butts off and left.
I did not know it then, but those girls were my initiation. Foster care is not an instant family. You follow the rules, you don’t keep secrets, and you maintain an instantaneous mad respect for every foster kid you meet, regardless of their story. You give it, you get it back. I never saw stranger sets of unity between people than I saw when I was in the system. All those kids I met were betrayed by someone, but none of us dared to betray each other.