As part of the change, my mom sought comfort and companionship with the handsome carpenter who lived across the street, Walt Kurczeski. It turned out Walt had his own demons, but I didn't know about them then. At that point, he was my mother's special friend. Many years later, when I asked how their friendship had started, she said, "He was there when I needed him -- with marriage or without."
All I knew was Walt was at our house whenever my dad wasn't there, which was more often than not. I didn't question the arrangement until one afternoon when I was waiting in front of my house to ride bikes with Eddie, a little Mexican boy who was one of my best friends. He walked up to me looking uncomfortable and announced that he couldn't ride bikes with me that day or any other day. When I asked why, he said his parents didn't want him to play with me anymore.
I didn't understand. We played together almost every day.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because my mom says your mother is bad."
My mother was bad? I didn't understand what he meant or why he said such a hurtful thing, and his words left me bleeding from a hundred little wounds. I held back tears as I raced home. I ran into the garage, sat on my bike, and cried while trying to figure out why my friend's mother would've said such a mean thing about my mom.
It didn't make sense. My mom was a sweet, shy, young woman. She wasn't bad, and she didn't have the capability of being mean. She fought with my father when he called from the road, but she sounded defensive and usually hung up feeling scared.
After a few minutes, I went inside and looked for my mom. She was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. I stared at her through tear-filled eyes. She asked if I had been crying. I lied and pretended nothing was wrong. I felt like I would hurt her if I told her that someone thought she was bad, and my instinct was to protect her.
She was twenty-five years old. Her hair was in a ponytail and she was wearing a cute dress that she had made herself, as she had most of her clothes, as well as my school outfits. None of that was bad. She liked to watch movies. She also sang around the house, played piano, and clapped when I danced for her. None of that was bad either.
At worst, she was troubled. But bad?
I could think of only one possibility for Eddie's words -- Walt. He was at our house for dinner and often still there in the morning. He was more of a companion to my mom than my father was. I grew used to him being around without really thinking about why he was there. Of course, in retrospect I know why. My mom and dad had split. I don't know if they had officially separated or divorced, but they weren't together anymore.
My mom never mentioned it. Walt's presence was assumed. He continued to show up after we moved to Simi Valley, and then to a rental in Reseda, and yet again to an even smaller home in Burbank that was so close to the freeway that I went to sleep and woke up to the sound of cars speeding past. Even after the final move to Burbank, my mother, sister, and I continued to shuttle back and forth between my grandparents' home in Saugus and those of various friends of my mother.