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Home Away from Home
I found another family when mine was falling apart
Caitlin Lemmo
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(Some names have been changed)

When I first got to my Catholic middle school in Queens, I was a 7th-grade girl who knew no one. One day in my English class, I was talking to another student and she introduced me to Rosa, who’d arrived in New York City from Ecuador when she was 6.

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Rosa teased me about being the new girl, but in a joking way. I’d make her laugh when we’d partner up for group assignments. We both had a cutting sense of humor, and we became close friends.

I helped her out with her English (my best and favorite subject.) She spoke perfectly, but her written English wasn’t that good. She helped me out with my math (her best, my worst). It was our own little system.

Every afternoon, I’d be at her house. We called me the little dog that follows her home after school.

Please Get Divorced!

I was happy when Rosa started inviting me over because if both my parents were home, they were usually screaming at each other. So I didn’t want to go home. They’d fought when I was little, too, but somehow we still managed to do things together like go to the park.

Now it seemed like they were intentionally avoiding each other. When one was home, the other would be out, and when they were in the house at the same time, they didn’t pay as much attention to me as they used to, partly because they were busy yelling at one another.

They’d say, “It’s not about you, Caitlin. It’s not your fault, it’s about us,” but I still felt like I had something to do with it. When I did something wrong, they blamed each other, and when I did something right, they also fought, each saying the other one hadn’t contributed to my good behavior.

It was obvious to me that they should get divorced. I’d scream that they should split up, but they’d just ignore me. I was angry and depressed, and I felt unwanted. But at Rosa’s house I felt welcomed.

Real Family Dinners

When I’d come over with Rosa after school, her family would greet me with hugs and kisses, or I would shout “Mama!” and her mom and grandmother would appear instantly at my side.

When I walked into my own house, my dad would greet me with a hug, but my mother and I had a strained relationship. I wished she showed me more affection.

Since Rosa’s family was from Ecuador, everyone spoke Spanish. Eight people lived in one huge house with three floors and a basement, and they were the first family I’d ever known that actually sat down together at the dinner table and acted like a family.
When I’d get there after school, there’d be a placemat set out for me. I remember a lot of chicken, beans and rice, which I love. Rosa’s grandmother was a terrific cook. She’d be in the kitchen for hours.

My family wasn’t as devoted to dinnertime. The most effort my parents put into a meal was picking up the phone and dialing a Chinese restaurant. Then I’d eat in my room—perhaps that’s why my carpet was so badly stained—while my dad ate and watched TV, and my mom sat alone at the kitchen table.

A Safe Haven

Rosa’s family seemed almost flawless to me, so much closer and more peaceful than mine. Although I witnessed a few family arguments, they usually didn’t fight when I was there. They kept their issues private, or rather, in Spanish.

Instead of going home and enduring the yelling and loneliness, I had a place to escape to. It didn’t make my problems go away, but I was happier with Rosa’s family than I would have been on my own.

I liked that they treated me like I was part of their family. I had a sense of belonging. Rosa’s mother didn’t pry into my home life, but she sensed something was wrong. She often told me that if I ever needed a place to go, I was welcome there. I got a lot of support from Rosa’s family.

Breaking the Language Barrier

Since I spent so much time there, though, it was frustrating not to know Spanish. I wanted to learn it because I hate being left out. In the beginning, Rosa translated or her mom would—her English was as good as Rosa’s. The rest of Rosa’s family talked to me in broken English, and I tried to speak back to them in broken Spanish.

After about a year of hanging out at Rosa’s, I began to speak better Spanish, and they couldn’t get anything past me. I’d joke around with them, though sometimes it’d take me a while to catch on to a joke, and I’d be the last to laugh. But I’d still get it.

image by Anna Jakimiuk

We’d watch our favorite Spanish soap operas, and I’d scream at the TV in Spanish, “How could you, Miguel!? How could you!?” Rosa would get a kick out of it, and her family found it funny, too.

Then I’d go home to my own soap opera. I’d get pissed off at my parents fighting and I’d lose my temper and start cursing in Spanish. Neither one of them understood what I was saying. They’d pause, their facial expressions turning from angry to confused, then they’d go back to yelling at each other.

I liked distracting them, even for a second. By teaching me Spanish, Rosa and her family gave me a small feeling of power over a situation that hurt me.

Snobs and Crackheads

But after being really close through 7th and 8th grade, Rosa and I began to lose touch during our freshman year at a Catholic high school in Manhattan. She wasn’t in any of my classes, so I didn’t see her as much.

Both of us started making new friends. I met mine in various classes, and we bonded quickly, taking the train into the city together, hanging out every day after class. We started to have a lot of fun, part of which meant drinking and getting into trouble.

For a while I tried to hang out with Rosa and her new group, bringing my friends along. But Rosa’s crowd thought that they were hot stuff and no one was on their level. They were into comparing grades and treated me like an idiot because mine weren’t as high as theirs.

Soon I found myself thinking Rosa’s friends were a bunch of snobs, and she seemed to think my friends were crackheads. I felt more attitude than support from her, and it hurt.

I was still having a tough time with my parents. They’d finally separated, but going back and forth between them was chaotic and harder emotionally than I thought it would be. But instead of going to Rosa and her family, I turned to my new friends.

The Big Break

The few times I went to her house freshman year, her family asked me why I wasn’t hanging around as much. They were concerned about me.

I avoided the question. I didn’t want to tell them that Rosa was changing and I was, too. I felt like I was like losing a sister.

Around sophomore year, Rosa started getting involved with drugs. She’d call me and ask me if I knew anyone who could hook her up with stuff like pot and ecstasy.

It wasn’t crazy for Rosa to assume that my friends could help her out. We were the rebels of the school, though we did much more drinking than anything else. I put her in touch with a dealer once, but then I didn’t want to hear about it anymore. I didn’t want to be a drug connection.

Then one night Rosa called me and said her mother had found notes in her room that mentioned drugs. She said her parents threatened to send her back to Ecuador, so she blamed everything on me, telling them I was the one who wanted the drugs. Her mother said she’d call my mother, but Rosa begged her not to.

Rosa asked me to back up her lie. I was furious. And I was hurt—I knew she didn’t care about our friendship or me.

Still, I told her I’d back her up, though I knew if my mom did hear about this, I’d tell her the truth. Letting Rosa’s family think that I was the one with drugs instead of Rosa was like my farewell “thanks” for what we used to have.

Building My Own Happiness

I haven’t talked to Rosa since. Her betrayal made it easier for me to leave our friendship behind. I switched to public school my junior year, and since then, I’ve only seen Rosa once around the neighborhood, though we only live four blocks apart.

I’m glad I’d already found my friends in high school when Rosa and I made our final break. But I’m forever indebted to Rosa’s family for taking me in and showing me that I didn’t have to rely on my parents for emotional support or for just a fun evening watching TV.

It was at Rosa’s house that I found and built my own happiness, away from Mom and Dad, for the first time. I’ve continued to do that, to seek out people who make me feel good, even during the rough times, and whom I can help in turn.

Are you a caring adult looking for more stories to help your youth? Go to HeretoListen.org, a resource for the front-line staff in schools and community based programs to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.

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(NYC-2004-04-07)