I spent the first twelve years of my life in Brooklyn, New York, in the area below Park Slope. It was a nice neighborhood, with the brownstone houses lining the streets, dotting the sloping hills. Trees grew abundantly along the sidewalks, in tiny patches of grass in front of each house. It was a happy suburban neighborhood where children laughed and sang, playing basketball in the school playgrounds. Momma (fondly) called it the Valley of the Stoops, because everywhere you went on the wide, slanting streets you would find people lounging on the stoops (our name for the steps in front of a building), people of every age and color; laughing, joking, selling old knick-knacks. Dad (not so fondly) called it the Cage because to him that’s exactly what Brooklyn was. He hated the neighborhood, the houses, he may even have hated us, his family. Dad hated anything that tied him down.
Everyone knew everybody else; my family was part of a laughing, caring community in the large Brooklyn neighborhood.
* * *
“Kaila!” Melissa called. “Kaila, they just put the list up.”
I screeched to a halt in front of the door to my Spanish class. I had been running; the bell was about to ring. “Really?” I said excitedly. “Did you see it yet?”
Melissa, my best friend since kindergarten, shook her head, eyes sparkling in excitement. “No, but Denise saw it.”
“Did she make it?” I asked. The three of us had been waiting for the list to be put up ever since we’d tried out for the girls’ basketball team.
Melissa shrugged. “I dunno, but she looked angry. I bet she didn’t.”
The bell rang. Melissa started to run to the school bulletin board. “I can’t wait all through Spanish to find out,” she told me as we ran.
The list was there, with ten names typed on it, showing the names of the new girls’ basketball team. I scanned it and found my name, the sixth on the list. “Yesss!” I cried, pumping my fist in the air.
Melissa smiled politely. “Good for you!” she said. Her name wasn’t there.
* * *
The first game was held only a week afterward, but we were a good enough team. We were playing against Bay Ridge Middle School, who had won the last three championships according to Coach.
The game started out fine. Sarah, an eighth-grader, scored three points and got a couple of steals. We were ahead by seven points by the end of the first half. In the second half we started to slip. I scored once and put us ahead by nine points in the beginning, but Bay Ridge tightened their defense and managed to cut our lead to two points. Coach called time-out with a minute and sixteen seconds to go. She gave us a pep-talk and switched a few players. I was still in the game. We scored twice more, but Bay Ridge cut the lead to a single point and scored with 8.3 seconds to the end of the game. I took the ball and passed it to Sarah, who shot a long three-pointer. The buzzer sounded as the ball hit the rim and bounced off. Bay Ridge had won.
* * *
Momma sat at the kitchen table, eyes snapping, head bent over the potatoes she was skinning. I stood uncertainly in the doorway, the rain from my umbrella dripping onto the floor. The house was warm and unusually quiet; my younger brother, Louis, was seven and ordinarily made a lot of noise. And Momma had been fighting with Dad an awful lot lately, so the noise level in our house had increased.
“Didya win your basketball game?” Momma raised her head and looked at me. I shook my head. “No, they beat us.”
“By how much?”
“A point.” I put away my umbrella and raincoat, coming to sit next to Momma. I picked up a potato and a knife and started to scrape away the skin. “Momma, where is everyone? It’s so quiet.”
Momma looked up sharply. “Louis is up in his room,” she said. The cold November rain pattered in rhythm on the roof and windows. It was late, maybe seven or so in the evening. Dad should have been home an hour ago. I wondered where he was, but I didn’t dare ask Momma.
She cleared her throat to fill the silence. “Rain hasn’t let up,” she observed. I nodded, finishing the last potato.
“Need any more help?” I asked Momma.
“No, go on upstairs. Do your homework or something.”
I went upstairs, but I didn’t go to my room. “Louis?” I said, poking my head into his room. He was sitting on the floor, quietly filling in a worksheet. He looked up at me.
“Did Momma stop crying?”
I was surprised. “She was crying?” I asked.
“Yeah, when Daddy came home. He made her cry. He yelled at her and told me to go to my room and get out of his way.”
“Dad came home?”
Louis nodded, returning to his worksheet. I went downstairs.
“Momma? Louis says Dad came home before. Where is he?”
Her head whipped around, eyes flashing. “Kaila, if I knew I would have told you when you came home. I don’t know where your father’s got himself to, but when he comes home . . . !” She sucked in her breath and made a violent gesture with her fist. I gave a small smile, knowing Momma had never and would never hurt a soul in her life, and went to my room.
* * *
My life at home did not improve over the next month or so. In fact, the only high point in my life at all became basketball. Even when Momma and Dad yelled until three in the morning, it made me feel better when I did well in practice the next day. When Coach told me I could start the game against Sunset Park in two days, it didn’t matter that Dad hadn’t come home at all the night before. I put my soul into the practices and games. Basketball set me free.
And then things went from bad to worse. Dad didn’t come home one night, and the next night he was still gone. Momma didn’t mention it at all. She went right on with her life as though nothing was wrong. For a week this went on, then for another week. Dad didn’t come home.
The night he came back was the night Momma knew we had to leave. Louis and I were at the table, doing our homework while Momma paid bills. The rain pounded on the windows, and the light from the kitchen lamp gave the house a warm, cozy feeling. We didn’t expect him to come back; Momma acted as though he’d never existed. The door opened and he walked in, swaying in the doorway, soaking wet. His eyes were bloodshot, his words slurred. He staggered toward Momma. “Liza . . .” he said, looking at her with squinted eyes as though he couldn’t see her.
Momma stood next to the table, back rigid, eyes turning to ice. She sent Louis and me to our rooms. We stayed at the top of the staircase, wide-eyed and scared. Pots clanged, Dad roared over Momma’s voice. Then he walked out the door and was gone.
* * *
And so, after our team had fought our way through all eight games and had made it to the play-offs (we were second in the league), it didn’t really come as a surprise when Momma spoke of divorce. “I know you and Louis have heard the fighting,” she told me as we made dinner one day in mid- December. “So I’m divorcing your father. It’s up to you who you want to live with.” I took her hand. “Momma, I’m staying with you.”
* * *
Dad had claim to the house; it was his, after all, he had bought it. And so, as the rest of the world looked forward to the holidays and a break from school, Louis and I began to look forward to when we could move and leave Brooklyn behind.
For I had begun to hate Brooklyn and our neighborhood. For the first time I understood why Dad called it the Cage. The people knew everyone else’s business, the society was too close-knit. The kids at school found out about my parents’ divorce and pestered Louis and me about it. “Your parents are really getting divorced?” they asked. “Who are you going to live with?” Some tormented us with, “Don’t your parents love you? Each other?” I ignored them, playing basketball for all I was worth, hoping every day that Momma would find a house so we could move away and I could start over.
* * *
She did find a house. It was a rickety old farmhouse with a barn. The house was small and falling apart, the peeling paint a faded yellow. The inside was white, with windows facing the ocean. The previous occupants had left furniture and a small wooden rowboat that I promptly decided to fix up. Momma, Louis, and I moved there during Christmas break. Dad could have the brownstone. I doubted he would stay long in Brooklyn anyway, now that we weren’t there to tie him down.
I didn’t give up basketball. My new school has a team, and I’ve joined. There are more schools in their league than there were in our league in Brooklyn, so there are still a few more games in the regular season. Our team is good, and we hope to make it to the play-offs.
Coach sent me a letter, telling me that they had won the championship for the first time in eight years. Everyone on the team added a little message to me, wishing me luck and telling me to keep playing basketball.
Momma and I have fixed up the inside of our new house, painting the walls in cheerful blues and greens, carpeting the floors with soft rugs. Louis is sanding the old furniture the previous occupants left for us. Come spring, we’ll paint the outside of the house.
It was hard to leave Brooklyn and my Valley of the Stoops, hard to leave Melissa and the basketball team behind. Even though the kids had teased me about the divorce, a part of me still didn’t want to leave. But for now, I have my family, the ocean, a boat, and basketball, and that’s the way it is.
Lia Regal, 12
New York, New York