by Tess Mangiardi
In the first minute of the 21 that would change my life, I was lying hungover in bed watching American Horror Story. It was my last night in Orlando before going back to NYC to start my second semester of college. I was 18. I had just gotten home to an empty house. My mother wasn’t there, and even though I’d been in Florida for two months, I realized she hadn’t been home that often. I shrugged, figuring she’d be back soon. My friends and I drank too much and laughed too loud the night before, and I felt a headache creeping up behind my eyelids. Despite the ache in my bones, I lay there with a smile. I was excited about all the possibilities of the next semester, grateful for my friends who filled my life with a merry-go-round of laugh-till-you cry bliss.
My life is a movie, I remember thinking. It was 11:05 am.
I feel a deep sadness whenever I look back on the days leading up to this morning. My posts on Facebook tell a story of a girl who loved everything about herself, about her life. Maybe I romanticize that time now because I know what was to come, and I’ve slapped on a rose-gold filter in hindsight. Or maybe my life was that happy. Either way, when I look back at my 18-year-old self, I see someone who had a thirst for life, who hadn’t yet been betrayed or broken. I was safe. I was beautiful. I was free.
As Sarah Paulson’s iconic scream wailed from the television, I looked over at my empty suitcase and felt a wave of guilt. My clothes still lay littered on the floor, and my hair smelled like cherry vodka and smoke. My best friend Austin would come over in a few hours to go to dinner with us and say goodbye. I still had last night’s eyeliner under my eyes. I needed to get up and take a shower. I slowly moved my legs off the bed.
I texted my friends about the night before and danced a little around my room before taking off my pajama bottoms. I was standing there in a pink Victoria’s Secret bra when the doorbell rang. I froze.
When I arrived in Orlando at the beginning of break, my mom had only three rules for me:
- Text me when you go out.
- Clean up after yourself.
- Under no circumstance do you open the door. If someone rings, turn off the TV and stand very still until they’re gone.
The first two rules made sense, the last one, none at all. My mom had always been a bit quirky, and I figured whatever she was up to was just her being paranoid. She’d recently broken up with her boyfriend, and I thought that maybe she was afraid he would stalk her, even though we lived in a building with a doorman. She didn’t answer any of my questions, so I stopped asking. The doorbell had only rung unsolicited once before – my mom was home, and we stood in her bedroom, still like statues until whoever was there went away. I felt ridiculous but rolled my eyes. I trusted that we’d be fine. To this day, I still tense up when the doorbell rings.
When I heard the melodic chime echo in the hallway, I froze in place, a bit afraid that her ex actually was stalking her and would find his way in somehow. I turned off the TV and held my breath.
The doorbell rang again. And again. And again. I could feel my heart racing and decided to creep towards the peephole. Then, the knocking began.
Fists knocked against the door, louder, and louder, and louder still. I felt the vibrations in the carpet under my toes. I took one step forward.
That’s when the door fell down.
The front door was knocked off its hinges with a surprising force.
Six pairs of black boots stormed into our foyer. A tall man with grey hair, a grey shirt, and a gun in his hand screamed, “FBI!” All six officers had guns pointed in my direction.
They turned their heads to see me standing half-naked in the hallway. I wanted to use my arms to cover myself, but the officer in grey pointed his gun in my face and told me not to move.
Another officer, who couldn’t have been more than thirty, looked my body up and down with greasy eyes. He had his gun pointed at me, too, but he was smirking.
“Are you her?” The grey-haired officer said my mother’s name. His face was very close to mine now. I couldn’t find my voice. I shook my head no.
“Well, where is she?” He was still screaming. He spat when he spoke, and I felt tiny wet droplets on my face.
“She-she’s not home,” I stuttered.
I sounded small. Looking like he didn’t believe me, the grey-haired officer kicked down my mother’s bedroom door. It was unlocked, but I had the feeling he enjoyed watching doors fall. He searched the room and then looked annoyed when he came out, realizing I was telling the truth.
“Get her out of here.” The officer with the greasy eyes smiled and put his hands around my bare waist. He wasn’t that much taller than me, but he was much stronger. His hands were callused and rough on my skin. I wanted to vomit cherry vodka all over his face. He picked me up and acted like he was going to throw me out of my own house.
“Wait!” A female officer with dirty blonde hair stepped out of the crowd in the hallway. “Let’s get her dressed. Can’t you see? She’s only a kid.”
Disappointed, greasy-eyes put me down and took a step towards my bedroom.
“I’ll go with her,” the woman said, stepping in front of him, and I was grateful.
I stood in my closet, fumbling to put on my clothes. The female officer had her hand on the holster of her gun, staring at me almost without blinking, as if at any moment I was going to pull a knife out of the padding of my bra. I felt completely numb and couldn’t register what was happening. My only thoughts were to find a dress, to put it on.
As I threw a blue dress over my shoulders, I finally said something. “I turn 19 in May. I go back to college tomorrow. Today is my last day here.” I was shocked at the sound of my voice. It sounded quiet but surprisingly calm. I’m not sure why I said it. It felt necessary to be reminded that I could speak, that this was real. Regardless, something about the way I said it made the officer’s face soften. She took her hand off her gun and turned around to eye my empty suitcase.
“Does your mother ever use your phone or laptop?”
“No, she wouldn’t know how.”
“Okay, come on. Pack up your things. You have five minutes.” She looked me in the eyes, and it was the first time I was confronted with a look I’d learn to know all too well: pity. I nodded and quietly thanked her. She left the room.
I packed haphazardly, my brain nothing but white noise and a checklist. Did I have my laptop charger? My winter coat? A toothbrush?
The black-booted officers were yelling at each other, throwing my mother’s things into the hallway. They carted our desktop computer out of the house. Now that I was clothed, no one paid much attention to me anymore, not even greasy-eyes.
I threw everything that I could think of into my suitcase until it was packed to the brim. I had to sit on it to get it closed.
“Ready?” the female officer said. I nodded and looked back at the bedroom I’d lived in for seven years. I always thought this would be the place I’d be able to come back to on holidays and spring break.
I hadn’t been home for six months and realized as I looked around that it would never be home again. A pit settled in my stomach.
I walked out of the apartment towards the elevator quietly, the female officer close behind. As a bunch of strangers pulled apart the strands of my mother’s life, I could only think that she’d hate what a mess they were making.
I’d never been so embarrassed. The doorman wouldn’t look me in the eye. Our neighbor, who had heard the commotion and went downstairs to complain, could only stare at me with her mouth wide open.
I concentrated on the smell of chlorine that seeped out of the fountain in the lobby, the scent of summer and lazy afternoons. My face felt hot with shame.
The office manager, who I’d always known as the sweet middle-aged lady that sometimes gave me cookies, grabbed my arm. She shuffled me into her office and closed the door.
“Do you know where your mother is?” Her face was a mix of sadness and pity.
“She just said…she just said she was going to work.”
“Have you tried calling her?” I hadn’t even thought about it.
“No.” She shook her head and made a tsk noise with her mouth.
“Do you have someone who can come and get you?”
“I could call my friend Austin?”
“It’d be good if you could do that, sweetie.” So I did.
I texted Austin that he needed to pick me up. It was an emergency. He told me he was already a few minutes away, that he was planning to surprise me with iced coffee and donuts. Was everything okay?
I only replied to hurry up and get here. I tried calling my mom a few times, but she wasn’t answering. I texted her: You need to call me right now.
The office manager, whose name I could never remember, was staring at me. I stared back.
“I’m sorry,” she said then. “I had to let them in.” It took me a moment to realize she meant the FBI.
“Oh, honey, nothing about this is okay.”
“My friend is outside,” I said. She nodded.
“Be safe, hon. And if you talk to your mom…well.”
“I hate saying this to you, sweetie, but if you talk to your mom, you have to tell her she’s not allowed to go inside without someone from the office escorting her. I’d tell her myself, but she’s not picking up the phone. I’m sorry.” I swallowed hard.
“Okay, yeah. Once I get a hold of her, I’ll tell her.”
She smiled tightly at me as I gathered my things. I headed back out to the lobby with my suitcases, clothes sticking out of zippers, and walked out of there for the last time.
I threw my things into Austin’s trunk and saw my reflection in the window. Last night’s eyeliner was all over my face, and my hair was tangled and frizzy. I was wearing my dress backward. I didn’t look like myself.
I got into the front seat and Austin, who I had known since we were fifteen, gasped.
“Tess,” he said. “What in the actual fuck happened to you?”
And that’s when the tears erupted. For the first time in twenty minutes, I allowed myself to think about what had just happened: the doorbell, the calloused hands, the guns. I thought of my mother, the person who I’d always trusted, telling me to stay frozen if someone rang the doorbell. Did she know? Is that why she wasn’t there? Did she know I’d be facing this alone?
I collapsed into Austin’s arms, and the tears wouldn’t stop. My heart felt like it was on fire.
“The police,” I choked. “My mom,” I tried to say.
“Okay, holy shit, oh god. It’s going to be fine.” I kept on crying. He held me tighter.
For my entire life, I thought my mom was a superhero. This beautiful woman who always wore red lipstick and a power suit. I knew she wasn’t perfect or easy to get along with, but I loved her fiercely. I wanted more than anything for this to be a nightmare I could wake up from.
I continued to cry on Austin’s shoulder when my phone started to ring.
A flood of relief filled my body. It was my mother. I expected her to laugh this off, tell me it was a mistake or a prank. A part of me imagined that I was being Punk’d.
“Mom, I—” I started.
A scream came from the other end. “Can you believe this?” she wailed. “Can you believe they came into our house like that and blamed me? I paid all of them back, and they do this? You don’t think I did this, do you? Do you?”
I was stunned into silence, and any semblance of relief fled my body. She rattled on for a few more seconds, yelling like a woman possessed about how she had paid them all back. I didn’t know who “them” was. All I could think about was the fact that she never, not once, asked if I was all right. The numbness from before crept back into my skin. She wouldn’t be officially arrested for another nine months. It would take that long before I recognized the weight of what was happening to my life.
I wanted to throw my phone out the window. Austin stared at me, looking a little terrified that I’d just gone from sobbing to sitting perfectly still.
“Do you want a donut?” he said, handing me a bag from Krispy Kreme. I laughed a little, tears springing from my eyes again.
“Yes,” I said, grabbing it. “Can we get out of here?”
“Of course. Where?”
“Anywhere but here.”
He took my hand in his and drove me away from the only life I’d known. I didn’t look back.
It was 11:26 am.
Tess Mangiardi is an American writer living in Switzerland. Tess went to The New School and graduated with a BA in Literary Studies, and has been published in a limited anthology for upcoming writers under 30. She is currently working on a novel. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her in a cafe somewhere with a cappuccino (or glass of vino) talking about what she’s currently reading, writing, or tweeting. To read more of her writing, check out her blog at http://femalehemingway.com.