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Greta

The waiter brings us our drinks, the glasses cold and wet from the freezer. Mine is sweet and very strong and I cough a little on the first sip. The liquid inside is a pale, frothy white that reminds me of soap water. Ryan insists I try the black, malicious-looking concoction that he has ordered but I am adamant and he backs off.

“Most girls don’t like bourbon anyway,” Ryan says. He has the scraggly facial hair of an adolescent, growing in hesitant spots around his mouth and when he talks, it is to this area of his face that my eyes are drawn. Combined with the red spots on his cheeks, they make his face look like a discount plastic Halloween Mask for a mime. “But I thought you Chicago girls were tough.”

I remember the first time I met Greta, how scared I was. It was my third time being transferred. Budget cuts, restructuring, annual quotas. They said a lot of things but we all knew the real reason. The counselors always said I wasn’t doing enough to grab anyone’s attention. They said I was too quiet, too reserved, and too unsure of myself. While the other girls showed their gap-toothed smiles and laughed loudly and told jokes about mice and lions, I sat quietly on my chair, my eyes downcast. While the other girls played violin or tap danced or sang in front of the wealthy couples who politely nodded and asked questions even as their eyes appraised and measured, like old farmers at a cattle sale, I sat there on that chair with my head bent, my stories and poems tacked to the bulletin board with my name on it. People stopped by, read (or attempted to read) my almost indecipherable scrawl and asked me some questions, but my one word answers were almost never enough to hold their attention and the women almost inevitably dragged their husbands away to one of the other, more attractive models on display.

“Look, honey, this one sings and writes,” I would imagine the wife saying as she pointed at Holly with her blonde curls or Anna with her baby pink skin.

I remember sitting in that room with my belongings in a small suitcase leaning against the wall, waiting for Greta. I had just turned thirteen and was now eligible for a two-person room instead of the big dorms I had slept in for most of my life. The room was small, but comfortably housed two beds, a dresser and a night stand between the two beds. The furniture was battered and covered in scratches, stickers and board marker graffiti. “Raymond wuz here,” declared one. “Mrs. Raeburn is a lesbo dyke cunt,” said another. I remember sitting on that bed, its mattress covered in plastic that never came off, so that every time you moved, you would hear the crinkle of the plastic. If you buried your face in your sheets and sniffed, the dull, nauseating grime of that old, grey plastic was what you got instead of the that fresh laundry smell the women in the commercials on the TV in the common room were always talking about. I remember being scared. I remember being scared of Greta.

Greta was something of a legend already back then. I had never met her, but everyone knew about the crazy girl who kept leaving with a family and then coming back a few months later. No one seemed to know exactly why, but rumors abounded, each one more fantastic than the last. She had stolen something. She was a drug dealer. She had set the house on fire. She had killed her foster parents. Inconsistencies were debated and hypotheses traded like folklore. But for all our talk, we were never any closer to the truth. What we did know was that there was a sweet-looking, beautiful girl in a home near us in the city, who kept getting adopted and then returned because there was something wrong with her. She was defective. She didn’t work properly. Her name was Greta.

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