by Francesca Macagnone, 15, New York, New York
What I remember most is what a beautiful day it was. Spring was in full bloom (as full as it can be in Manhattan) and the weather was perfect, not too hot and not too cold. The breeze blew through the trees and through my hair, keeping me cool. My favorite thing about spring was always the way it smelled. It was something like the smell that comes for only a few hours after the rain—moist earth and car fuel. Everything needed for a perfect day was present and I was convinced it would be.
One of my favorite people in the world, Elizabeth, had just come to pick me up. I met her when I was seven years-old. She had been my babysitter and one of my best friends for the past two years. She was only about six or seven years older than me, and when my family had spent a month in Italy she had come with us. A few months earlier she had gotten suspended from high school and her mother had confined her to the house to "focus on her school work." At nine years-old I couldn't really understand why I couldn't see her anymore. When she called my house the morning of that perfect day, I was elated. Her mother had finally decided to let her out of the house and she wanted to spend her first day of freedom with me.
She arrived carrying a basketball and told my mother we were going to Stuyvesant Park to play. As we walked towards the park I squinted my eyes to shield them from the day's brightness. Elizabeth was unusually quiet and when she finally did speak she told me that before we played basketball we were going to visit some of her friends. She told me that since she had been grounded for so long she hadn't seen any of them in a long time. I didn't know any of her friends and I didn't really want to go but I couldn't say "no" or ask to go home because I didn't want to seem like I was scared or being a baby.
We entered the park and it seemed like we had to walk a long way to get to her friends' apartment. When we finally arrived and entered the building's lobby my eyes felt strange because the sun was no longer shining so brightly in my eyes. She brought me into an extremely small elevator, even darker than the lobby. I watched the numbers above the elevator door illuminate as we traveled upwards, finally stopping at the sixth floor. When the elevator door opened the first thing I noticed was the smell—it was kind of sweet but also a little like skunk and cigarettes as well. It was a smell that I did not recognize at the time, but I have now come to know well.
"Frankie, I want you to stay out here; I just have to go inside to get something. I'll be out in a few minutes," Elizabeth said. Already upset by the darkened hallway and the weird smell, I told Elizabeth that I didn't want to be left alone. But she said she was going anyway. She knocked and stood by the door for a few minutes before anyone came to open it. When she entered the apartment, everyone inside began to yell. To this day I don't know why the people inside were yelling, maybe they were mad at her or she owed them money or something. I had heard the music blasting before the elevator reached the third floor, but the yelling now overcame the music. I couldn't make out any of the words, but the longer the yelling went on and the longer I stayed in that dark hallway, the more frightening everything seemed. I kept thinking that she had gone into the wrong apartment and she was probably hurt. That any minute one of those bad people was going to come into the hallway to get me. I went and hid behind a corner, near tears but still just hoping Elizabeth would come out and bring me home.
After what seemed like hours she came out and said, "Hey, you can come inside now." I told her I really just wanted to go home but she grabbed my hand and dragged me inside. The apartment, even darker than the hallway, seemed to overflow with bodies. Elizabeth sat me on a stained, ratty green couch and told me not to move. Her eyes were glazed over and she didn't look like herself. The TV was on and there was a man standing over two women inserting household objects into them. I was repulsed by this and I tried to avert my eyes; as I looked down I noticed a bent spoon lying on an autumn-colored carpet. As I looked around some more I noticed five men lying on the floor—they appeared to be sleeping or passed out or worse.
I finally looked over at the guy sitting next to me on the couch. I had felt him looking at me but up to that point I had been too nervous to look over. He was lying back on the couch with his feet propped on the coffee table. One of its table legs was broken and it was being held up with books. He looked over at me, his blank eyes having trouble focusing; he smiled and his teeth looked like they were covered with moss. He stank of rancid sweat, as did the entire apartment. I noticed that he had purple welts in the crease of his arm. As I watched him, his head fell back and I looked away.
After what seemed like forever Elizabeth came back. She told me to come with her into her friend Deirdre's room. The first thing I noticed was an enormous pile of unwashed clothes in the corner of the room. The walls were covered in graffiti and the words "NO SALVATION" were written in huge block letters, taking up one whole wall. There were about six people sitting in the room. The whole place was filled with smoke—the smell which pervaded the entire apartment was strongest in here. They were breathing in smoke from a brightly colored plastic object and then coughing their lungs up. They all kept telling dirty jokes and made sure I laughed along with them. I started getting dizzy from the heavy smoke and finally we all left the room.
I walked towards the front door of the apartment, hoping Elizabeth would notice me. But right as I came close to the door someone started slamming on it. Then the yelling started: "If you don't open this f------ door now I'm gonna f------- kill all of you. Deirdre open this door now, I know you let them f------ n------ in the house again. When I get in there I'm gonna f------ lynch all their a-----. You let in the enemy, you let in the enemy..." The yelling continued until finally Elizabeth grabbed my arm, shoved me into the bathroom, and told me not to come out. They must have let him inside because the yelling got louder. I heard one of the men say, "Shut up, you f------ psycho." They then locked him in the closet. The yelling had stopped; I wondered if he banged his head or passed out or something. Elizabeth grabbed me and brought me to the door of the apartment, about to bring me out into the hallway. But all of a sudden a gigantic man came over to me. He was covered in tattoos, but his skin was so dark they were barely visible. He took a very small-looking gun out of his pocket and he put it to my head. He said, "Do you wanna die?" I told him I didn't and he then told me it was too late and I had seen too much—I was too scared to even breathe. It was very hot in the apartment and a drop of sweat dripped off his face and onto my forehead. He then pulled the trigger, I closed my eyes shut tightly. When I opened my eyes I saw that it wasn't really a gun—it was only a lighter. Everyone burst into laughter, but I could still barely breathe. Then he grabbed the front of my shirt: "I might have been kidding about killing you now but don't think you're in the clear, you little b----." He then pulled out a real gun. To demonstrate that it was real he opened the chamber and showed me that there were bullets inside. He said, "This here is a snub nosed 38 revolver and if you tell a soul about what you saw here, I'll kill you. And if you go crying to your mommy and daddy, you won't be the only one who gets a f------ bullet in their head." He pushed me aside and I opened the door and ran into the hallway.
I sat outside for a few minutes and finally Elizabeth came out. She didn't say a word to me, she just left the building and walked back to my house while I followed. It was no longer the bright sunny day it had been before. It was still day time but it had gotten cold and dark clouds covered the sun. Elizabeth stopped when we reached the front door of my building. She looked down at me, her still glazed-over eyes showed no emotion. "Sorry," she said, "I didn't think Deirdre's dad would be there. I guess I'll see you soon or whatever."
Three years passed and I hadn't seen or heard from Elizabeth since. I had lost something that day. Maybe it was a piece of my innocence or just my trust in others. I never told my parents about what happened—first because I feared for my life, and then because it was just easier not to think about it. When I look back on the experience now, so many other horrible things could have happened—in a way I was lucky.
One day the phone rang, I picked it up but my mother had gotten to it before me. I listened to see if the call was for me; it turned out to be Tess, Elizabeth's mother. She spoke to my mom for awhile and then they started talking about Elizabeth. Apparently she had gotten kicked out of her high school. One day Tess followed Elizabeth when she went out and ended up in Stuyvesant town. She watched Elizabeth go into the building and then watched to see what floor she went up to. Tess then went up to the sixth floor and knocked on the first apartment door she saw. She said the guy who opened the door was barely conscious. She asked him if Elizabeth was there and he just looked at her, so she pushed past him into the apartment. She found Elizabeth, dragged her out of the apartment, and then called the police. The police later told her that the apartment was a crash pad. Most of the people there were heroin addicts with no place else to go when they were using. Deirdre's father was a Vietnam veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He had been in a psychiatric hospital for awhile after Deidre's mother died, and he was supposed to take medication every day. Apparently he hadn't taken the medication in years. He also was never supposed to be left alone because he would get very severe flashbacks. Deirdre and the other people who crashed in her apartment periodically locked her father in the closet for week s at a time. Every few days he would be given scraps of food or bowls of water. They found him covered in feces and half-starved. Elizabeth had gone to rehab a few times for heroin and eventually disappeared. Her mother hadn't heard from her in months.
In an effort to block out the memory and not feel bad for lying to my parents about what happened that day, I stopped thinking about it. I had never forgotten what happened, I just put it out of my mind completely. This is interesting because the memory of that crash pad is one of my strongest memories. Almost every detail about what it looked like and what was said is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. It's funny because the things you don't want to remember always stay with you the longest.
In all of my weather-related memories I can never remember a day that was brighter or more beautiful than that morning before Elizabeth brought me to the apartment. And I can never remember the sky seeming more dark and gloomy than it did after we left. I know this is just a trick my mind plays with me to try and find significance or irony in that day. But all I really know is how much my view of the world changed after being there. I can honestly say that when I was in the apartment, I was more scared than I had ever been in my life. I guess that's why I remember it so well. But what I think scares me the most is looking back on it now, because it doesn't seem so scary anymore—the drug use, the yelling, the dirty jokes and pile of stinking clothes all seem kind of trivial. At the time those images scared me so much and were permanently burned into my memory. None of it really seems so bad anymore. As I grew up I saw the things I had only seen in the crash pad more and more often. They became familiar to me rather than foreign or perverse. I try not to think of it too much; I might scare myself.