I was a freshman in high school living in an affluent suburb of South Jersey and up until this point, everything was fairly normal.
Except, a few somethings were about to go really wrong.
It would later be revealed that my once perfect existence was really just smoke and mirrors.
But let’s start at the beginning.
It was September 2003. I remember getting ready for my first day of freshman year at Cherry Hill High School East. My sister, Michaela, at the time, was blonde, and I had convinced my mom that I was old enough to get a few highlights. She agreed. We were both natural brunettes (I was darker than she was), but I
wanted, no I had to be just like her.
I can remember it like it was yesterday.
I recall picking out my outfit months in advance. Now, it was finally time to put it on and head to high school for the very first time. I knew I would eventually be old enough to attend, I just never thought the day would actually come if you know what I mean.
I wake up early to shower and do my hair.
I stand in my bathroom with a towel over my head as it starts to spin. I had mentally prepared for this moment all summer, but now it was here. My anxiety was in overdrive. I didn’t think I was ready —except I had no choice. I had to be.
I slide on a pair of skinny jeans and as I place a tight black v-neck over my head, my hair gets caught on my brand new gold earrings. I blot my favorite pink juicy tube lip-gloss to my uncertain lips and give myself one last glance in the full-length skinny mirror that hung from my bedroom door.
I walk down to the kitchen once I’m ready.
My remarkable stay-at-home mom just made me my favorite egg white mozzarella and spinach Florentine Omelet. I appreciated it a lot but they were called skinny jeans for a reason. She insists I have to eat something. Instead, I grab an apple off the kitchen table, thank her for the thoughtful breakfast and kiss her goodbye as I head out the door.
It was Time.
I had taken the bus every day for my elementary and middle school academic career. I lived close enough to walk back then, but now that I was at a different school, things were well, different. AND, what kind of loser walks to their first day of high school anyway? —apparently not this girl.
Happily, a new family just moved in next door and this awesome junior, Olivia happened to be a part of that new family who asked me months earlier, if I wanted to be in her carpool.
A popular upperclassman wanted to drive me? How could I say no?
As I shut the front door, locking it behind me, I push my perfectly straightened hair out of my face, take a deep breath and walk towards Olivia’s car. I was officially ready for my first day of high school. Unfortunately, I had missed my sister by one year. She was in Sunny Florida attending Lynn University as a college freshman. I suppose it was a fresh start for us both.
Nearly 90,000 other people call Cherry Hill, New Jersey home. Most everyone here is Jewish (including my family); as a result, you could expect to see a temple (and diners; us Jerseyans love our diners) at every corner.
The Lay of the Land.
As far as academics go, there were 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools who happened to be rivals (they still are). It was the east side (where I lived) vs. the west, and they were pretty different. If you weren’t from this area, you’d probably think they were two separate towns.
I was excited to start over at a new school with new surroundings. I thought I could be a new me.
Most of the students already knew who I was so I wasn’t expecting too much, however, since two of the three middle schools were on the east side, the one I didn’t attend was actually joining my freshman class in high school. And so, I daydreamed that I’d be able to be that new me.
I wanted a name for myself —little Michaela worked, but I wanted something more. Even though my sister was no longer a high school student, her reputation remained. And so, some of the upperclassmen who knew her would literally call me Little Michaela, and I can’t lie, I didn’t hate it. Who am I kidding?
I loved every second of it.
I’m not just saying this because she’s my sister but she was pretty damn popular and not in a mean girl kind of way. Everyone knew her because she was nice to everyone. She also happened to be drop-dead gorgeous. Anyway, things were actually going surprisingly well for us both. I made a solid group of friends and found my groove. Besides a few melodramatic moments, I couldn’t complain.
Except, my mom and dad were fighting more and each argument was getting worse and more intense. It felt like screaming was their only voice of reason, which I know makes no sense.
Basically, everything my mom did, my dad hated and everything my dad did, my mom hated. I will say that a lot of it had to do with money. At the time though, I didn’t truly understand what was happening below the surface. They always tried to make everything seem like nothing was wrong (maybe that’s where I get it from lol).
They had fought before, but never this bad.
I remember before my sister left for college, she’d always come into my room whenever an argument got out of hand and we’d try to comfort one another. Sometimes we cried because their fighting scared us. And others, we knew it was inevitable so we’d just wait it out together.
Late Night Aggression.
Except now, she wasn’t down the hall, she was across the country. And so, I remember calling her crying. I’d raise my phone in the air, facing it to the hallway so she could hear the madness. It sucked she was so far away, but I didn’t blame her. I mean she was living it up sunny Florida style —in and out of South Beach. Her days were filled with tan lines and day drinking followed by pregaming and club hopping. At the time, she was dating this Italian Prince and her roommate worshipped the ground she walked on.
She definitely deserved it though. But it didn’t make things on my end any easier. I was the one affected by everything since I was flying solo as their fights escalated. I pretended they didn’t bother me. I knew it would hurt my mom even more than she already was. I didn’t want to add insult to injury. I mean, most nights she’d cry herself to sleep.
How did I know?
Because at that point, she spent more time in my room helping me fall asleep than with her own husband. I always had issues with sleep so I’d make my mom scratch my back until I dozed off. I did this as a kid and somethings never change. She didn’t mind in the least bit though. I actually think she preferred it this way because the further away she was from my dad, the happier she felt.
Meanwhile, their fighting continues day and night. I could never figure out the basis of it all. In short, it was over nothing and everything. I’d later learn that financial burdens are heavy, but at this time, one thing eventually led to another and before I knew it, they hated each other. It was pretty black and white. They were no longer in love. I mean, they couldn’t even be in the same room for more than five minutes.
My dad was a high-class defense attorney in Philly. He was making great money but I suppose, he was spending more than he was making at the end. At first, though, he could handle it but after supporting three females and himself all living a pretty lavish lifestyle in a pretty rich town meant you had to keep up with Joneses.
I guess you really didn’t but that’s how it felt.
More was always better and too much was never enough. From limitless shopping sprees, epic family vacations, sleepaway camp and our day-to-day high maintenance attitude, after a while, the money coming in was far less than the money going out. I will say, my mom, sister and I never asked for this stuff. We just got them and kept getting them so we thought it was normal and that my dad was making more than enough.
I was by no means a snob, just privileged (at first). I didn’t know any different back then. I think if we would have talked about this as a family, laying all of the cards on the table, maybe we could have saved ourselves. But that didn’t happen. And that’s OK. No regrets.
As an adult though, I see now how it all went down. It was a slow fade in and then all at a once everything just kind of exploded. The bills started piling up. I think we were living off credit cards for the last of it until eventually, they were all declined. Then, my mom said enough was enough.
Drawing Up The Papers.
I remember her sitting me down gently explaining that her and my dad were going to get a divorce. My mom ends up telling my dad because of all the fighting, the finical woes, and now his not so secret gambling addiction, she was simply over it. She was out. It was all too much to handle and it was time for a change.
I knew it had been over between them months ago, but to have it in writing, legally done, was something entirely different. Regardless, it didn’t really sink in that my family was wasn’t a family anymore. I had friends whose parents were divorced so I wasn’t totally clueless, but that was them and this was my life.
I didn’t really grasp how things were about to change, but it was out of my hands.
And I think that’s where my issue with control ultimately began —leaving me with this craving for authority since it felt like I had none. Looking back now, it was control I needed, but couldn’t get. And so, the one thing I could control was me and food, which is how my body dysmorphic disorder escalated into straight up anorexia.
I learned later on that we can only control our actions and how we react to those around us. Although I couldn’t control what people did or said, I could control what I did after they said whatever they said. Except, I didn’t understand that back then. At the time, I felt alone. My friends were kind of all over the place. It was winter break and everyone was on vacation.
Everyone, but me.
My sister was still in Florida while I was stuck in the middle of this nasty divorce. I’ll admit, at first, it didn’t seem too bad. After the initial shock that my parents were no longer a couple, I realized that it wouldn’t change too much of my day-to-day.
My dad was usually at work until dinner time anyway. Some nights he’d even come home after. Only I think I just told myself that to make myself feel better. These days, dinner was for two —and things were about to change even more.
Days went by and we were all still living together. My dad would go to work and I would go to school. My mom got a part-time administrative job to help cover her attorney fees for the divorce. But because we were all living under the same roof, it made things a bit awkward, to say the least.
I remember coming home from school one day to find the guest room was now my dad’s.
That was a weird feeling. I now shared a bathroom with my father? He obviously lived in the master bedroom for the last 28 years. Except, my mom officially kicked him out. Since he definitely didn’t have the funds to find a place of his own while everything was finalized, he had nowhere to go —so swapping rooms was his only option.
Life felt more out of control than ever. I was on autopilot going through the motions. I’d get up, get dressed, go to school and come home. My mom would cook us dinner where we’d sit at the same table we once had family dinners —except now, it was just her and I.
My dad sat in the family room (literally right next door) watching T.V. pretending not to see nor smell our home-cooked meal. My dad wasn’t allowed in the master bedroom, and now he couldn’t eat dinner nor enjoy any of my mom’s awesome food.
You Could Cut the Tension with a Knife.
I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table. We always watched television during dinner, which was still true. As you know, my dad’s in the next room doing the exact same thing (minus the food part; he started going to McDonald’s after work, unfortunately). Both T.V.s were ironically playing Seinfeld —his was a few seconds behind. I remember turning around and seeing my dad stare at us.
It was all too much to handle.
He looked sad and kind of desperate for a seat at the table. I knew better though. They never made me choose sides or anything like that. I will say though, growing up it was usually my mom and me vs. my dad and sister. The divorce was no different. In a way, it negatively impacted my relationship with my sister but eventually, things evened out.
Anyway, at this point, regardless of the politics, it was still hard. In short, I simply detested being home. It was a shocking reminder of how messed up my family life had become and I didn’t want to deal with that or feel any of these feelings. I mean, what teenager would anyway?
I remember wishing I was anywhere, but here —be careful what you wish for.
It was now almost summer. I had a few weeks left of school and everything I knew was about to be history. I was still hanging out with that same group of girls. But this one Saturday afternoon, in particular, I remember getting invited to a friend’s house. Except, something told me to stay home and hang with my mom.
I recall sitting in the infamous family room on my favorite couch with her. My dad who should have been home by now was not. We didn’t think anything of it as we continued with our movie. We were watching Because I Said So with Diane Keaton laughing out loud. We were having a great time and in an instant, things were about to change.
My dad eventually came home but for the last time.
He goes straight into the guest room where all of his stuff was. I follow. We talk a bit and he tells me he’s leaving. Apparently, some shit went down and he needed to get out of town. He ends up moving to Florida directly down the street from my sister in Boca Raton. I couldn’t help but be jealous that he was the one leaving when he was the reason we were all in this mess, to begin with. And yet, I still was sad to see him go.
Sometime later, we all gather in the foyer as my dad packs up his car. Even my mom was sad. I remember the three of us, now outside, hugging in a circle as we say goodbye to my dad for the last time. My mom was still going through with the divorce but they were married for 30 years so it had to have been weird for her to see him leave the very house they build a home in —regardles of her emotions toward him.
And so, on that sad Saturday, my dad places his last piece of luggage in the trunk and drives away —leaving my mom and me unable to move from our position. We were stuck. It was over yet it felt like it would never end —or at least that it wasn’t getting better anytime soon.
Eventually, we go back inside. I remember running to his room and seeing the closest and drawers empty. I walk next door into the bathroom and my sink buddy was gone. So was all of his stuff. I had been mad at him for some shit I found out he did to my mom, but that day, all I felt was sorrow.
Knock, Knock. Who’s There?
Weeks go by, and we’re adjusting. I did start rebelling a bit but mostly just young drunken fun. We kind of figured we’d have to move out of the house eventually but we didn’t know just how quickly. One weekend morning, we hear a knock at the door.
My mom rushes to answer it. To her surprise, it was a man in a police uniform, the sheriff. Apparently, my dad wasn’t able to cover the monthly mortgage payments for over a year now. I guess he pretended that they didn’t exist and I understand. He was in over his head and thought there was no way back.
I know now that he definitely didn’t do any of this on purpose but at the time, I couldn’t understand (I don’t think my mom did either or at least the gravity of the situation). In fact, I didn’t understand anything besides that the house I grew up was in foreclosure.
We were getting kicked out.
The sheriff proceeds to tell my mom that this property is in late action foreclosure. He went on saying that the fastest evictions are in the range of two to three weeks if all hearings and notices are properly executed. A certified document (referred to as a breach letter) was sent multiple times warning us of the bank’s intent to foreclose. They even tried to help us set up a payment plan in an attempt to bring our status to current or else.
Apparently, my dad had received this letter and many others like it over the course of the last year and a half, which was why things were the way they were, why my dad left, and the reason the county sheriff made a personal visit to country club drive. I was pissed.
The sheriff said something like this:
“Because your bank hasn’t received a payment in the last two years, we must proceed with the sale. You have two weeks to vacate the premises or we will be forced to press legal charges.”
“If you are able to pay your backed mortgage, we can forgo the forecloser. However, until payment or a payment plan is received and confirmed, you must leave within the next 14 days. Miss Bernstein, I am so sorry I have to be the one to share the news with you, but, as a courtesy to your family, I wanted to give you the news in person instead of receiving a letter two weeks from now saying you have to leave now.”
My mom stood there for a moment, unsure of what just happened as I secretly listened.
I couldn’t believe it. It seemed as if all my high school problems were now so trivial. I thought my mom and I were about to be homeless. My entire life was in this house —all my memories, everything. I remember hating my dad at that instant. I wanted to punch him in the face. How could he do this to me? How could he do this to my mom? What if Michaela was still home, would this still be happening?
I forgive him now but his lack of action enraged me then. I didn’t want to talk to him. In fact, I didn’t for the next three years. Unfortunately, he told my sister basically everything he did, my mom did —as a result, my sister didn’t speak to my mom for around the same time I didn’t talk to my dad.
I can’t lie. It was hard. It was really hard.
Luckily, my mom had wealthy parents who started a trust fund for her in case of an emergency and boy was this that. She found a realtor right away who got us a two-bedroom apartment on the other side of town.
It was still a decent place but it wasn’t home. I did my best to present a positive attitude but inside, I was screaming. Most nights before we left, I cried myself to sleep. I think my mom did too. We weren’t ready to let go of country club drive.
I Wasn’t Ready to Move On.
And either was my mom. But sometimes, you just don’t have a choice. As a consequence of all of this and the small condo we were about to move into, we had to sell most of our shit. I mean, we were living in a beautiful home with five bedrooms and four bathrooms, which now meant nothing. Needlesstosay, we had to downsize. We were about to move into a spot that was the size of our foyer. Like I said, I clearly wasn’t ready.
One of the hardest parts was thinking about what my peers would say.
Would they deem me less than? I used to be the house everyone hung out at. I would have house parties in my basement, which was a pretty awesome hang out spot. And since Cherry Hill is an affluent town, I thought if I didn’t live in a mansion anymore that my friends would somehow judge me for it. I mean, compared to some, my old house was still pretty small so if I was moving into a freaking apartment, why wouldn’t they think negatively of me?
I think it was my own insecurities because my friends truly didn’t care about that stuff but it still made me feel detached. My mom did her freaking best to prove the opposite and I was grateful AF (I still am), but it didn’t make our current situation any less hurtful.
I remember packing up my room and crying. I remember sitting on the floor with all my clothes in boxes thinking this was it. All of that for this? After all the years, all of the shopping sprees, the family dinners, the memories —just to pack up and leave it all behind?
I didn’t understand how this could happen.
All I did know was that things were about to change but I had to be there for my mom. I’ll never forget her words. Okay, I thought. If she tells me that everything is going to be alright then I believe it will. It wouldn’t change the suffering that we would both endure, but at least we had each other.
I knew she was broken. I mean, the last 40 years of her life were basically for nothing or at least that’s how we felt at the time. As we pack up the rest of the house and load up the U-Haul, I take one last look at my bedroom. I knew I would never be here again. I would never call this my home.
It was such a strange feeling.
Even though it was just a room, it was mine. I remember playing house as a little girl, turning my bedroom into a New York City boutique called “In Her Closest.” I remember making roll call sheets whenever I played teacher transforming my bedroom into a classroom.
I remember doing my hair for the freshman dance. I remember having my second kiss here alongside my middle school crush. This was my creative sanctuary where I could be myself and not feel judged. It was my favorite spot. It was where I cried and even laughed. Now, I was saying goodbye to it all; literally, everything I’ve ever known.
But we still had work to do. We had gotten basically everything packed up later that day. It was now just a room with periwinkle walls and crown molding that separated the purple tones from the pale yellow contrast that appeared on the ceiling. It was my safe place and now, it wasn’t even mine.
I still couldn’t wrap my head around any of this, but forward I go.
As we put the last box in the truck, my mom and I stand on the front porch hand-in-hand. It was about that time. Destination —the Woods II (I’ll be writing another blog post shortly on what happens next so stay tuned, people). In short, It was a long and difficult adjustment. I can’t lie.
I didn’t have friends come over for a while because I guess I was a little bit embarrassed. But eventually, things got better. I realized that if I was strong enough to say goodbye, then I was tough enough to find my new hello. And suddenly, I realized it was time to start trusting the magic in beginnings.
Until next time, guys.
*names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
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