9. Pizza! Pizza!


After looking left and right, and right and left, I pressed on the gas pedal and slowly inched forward onto the road. The streetlights offered a decent amount of brightness. My hands tightly gripped the steering wheel and I gave myself a mental high-five for remembering to check each rearview mirror. Aunt Jenny came to pick me up after work and let me drive home since I needed the practice. The backseat was filled with some of her kids so I put in extra effort to drive carefully.


Up ahead a cop car turned onto the road, driving towards me. He blinked his headlights. I straightened in my seat. There were no other cars behind me. Was he signaling at me? A few seconds passed as the distance between our cars closed. He flashed the headlights again. I looked at Aunt Jenny.


“Why is that cop flashing his headlights?” I asked nervously.


She leaned over to verify my speed limit. “Hmm, everything seems fine. We’re buckled up, you’re driving 25, are your headlights turned on?” I fumbled with the knobs until I found the correct one and switched on the lights. Oops!


The cop was flashing his lights for the third time right as my headlights came on. Suspicious at the delay of such a simple task, he turned on the red and blue lights and did a U-turn right behind my car to pull me over. Oh no! I slammed on the brakes and abruptly pulled over to the side. My heart began to race. I watched through the rearview mirror as his door opened and a tall man in a dark police uniform stepped out to walk over to my car.

“Good evening,” the officer greeted me after I finally managed to roll down the window. He had brown hair and appeared friendly. “I noticed some trouble with your headlights so wanted to check everything out. May I see your license and registration please,” he requested.


Aunt Jenny quickly gave me the paperwork. With my hand trembling, I handed it over to the officer. He waited. “And your driver’s license?”


“I… I’m not 16 yet. I…I don’t have one,” I stammered.


“Excuse me? Then why are you driving?” The officer peered into the backseat of the car. “Who’s all this?”


“These are my cousins. This is my aunt.” I motioned towards the passenger seat.


He looked at me with an exasperated expression. “So. You don’t have your driver’s license. You’re driving with somebody who is not your parent. You have a full car of people, who are kids! Wow. Well, at least show me your learner’s permit.”


I gulped. “I’ll have it in a few days. I just started Driver’s Ed and applied for the permit. It’s supposed to arrive in the mail any day now.” I wondered what would happen to me. Can a person get arrested for driving without a license?


The officer sighed loudly and looked around as if trying to remember what to do in this type of a situation. I bet he didn’t have a lot of experience with minors driving cars illegally.


“What is your name?” he finally asked, after pulling out a tiny notebook from his pocket. “Spell that, please. And your last name? How about the address? What is your aunt’s name? Her address please. You live with your aunt? Where are your parents?”


I told him that Dad died a few years ago and that Mom just died a few months ago, so I live with my aunt and uncle. The officer inquired about previous addresses where my family lived.


“Oh hold on a moment. Was it the yellow house by the Post Office?” he asked.


I nodded. Yikes. Was this guy psychic?


He took a deep breath. “I was one of the officers who responded several times to the emergency calls when your dad was being taken to the hospital.” He paused. “What a rough time you had to go through. No. I don’t want to add more problems to your life. Here’s what you’ll do. Get out of the driver’s seat, switch seats with your aunt, and have her drive you home. Don’t drive anymore without a driver’s license. OK? Good luck in life.”


And just like that, he shoved the notebook into his pocket and quickly walked away. A shaky sigh of relief escaped from Aunt Jenny’s mouth. We switched seats and drove home.


I didn’t enjoy school anymore. I doodled in my notebooks and skipped classes. It wasn’t as glamorous as I had imagined it to be. Sometimes I would skip a class and end up spending time in the library reading or chatting with friends. One time my friend and I had a chance to skip for a whole day, where we got a ride to the mall half an hour away. Now that was exciting. Instead of sitting in class we walked around the stores trying on clothes and eating junk food. After we walked out of one of the stores, my friend did a little victory dance. She showed me the contents of her purse and I saw a cute pink skirt that she had been trying on moments earlier. I stared at her.

“When did you have a chance to go to the register?” This didn’t make sense at all. She grinned. “I didn’t!”

No, this can’t be right. “How is it in your purse?”

She kept smiling.

“Did you steal it?”

She closed her purse and started walking. I caught up to her. “What is wrong with you? Why? Your family is rich! You have enough money!” This was followed by a string of colorful words that are not appropriate to write down.

Our friendship was never the same after that incident, and since she had been my best friend at the time, school became more of a dreary chore.


When I was at home, I felt weird. It didn’t feel like the home I had grown up in. It was way too quiet. Most of the siblings were gone. There were no more braiding hair competitions. There were no more chocolate and tea parties. The collective sound of voices of all my siblings was gone. I missed the rambunctious toddlers who ran up and down the stairs and always got in the way. I missed the games of tag we played in our downstairs living room. I closed my eyes and replayed the game in my mind. My heart pounding from running, I’m racing to the laundry or kitchen “safe zone” where I could rest for a minute from the person who was “It”. Catch my breath, and keep going. It was our entertainment. We had fun. The lively squeals and thunderous bumps against the walls from all our games sometimes got us in trouble. Then at other times I was the one annoyed; I needed to do homework and it was too loud.


Now at this house, it was a lot quieter; I could do as much homework as I wanted to. I didn’t have to constantly cook or babysit or clean, just keep my room tidy. I didn’t need to help anybody with his or her homework or projects, or sign the take-home sheets from school. Everything that I had done didn’t need to be done by me anymore. Aunt Jenny managed her kids and her kitchen and the rest of the household. I felt utterly useless.


My thoughts would drift back to my best memories of Mom. They usually involved something in the kitchen. We sat around the kitchen table and she showed me how to roll up cabbage rolls. I questioned why pieces of butter needed to go between each layer of the cabbage rolls and her answer was “Well, because butter makes everything taste better!” We had dumpling evenings too. For several hours we mixed, cut, and rolled pieces of dough into round flat disks. Then we filled them up with meat and pinched them together into perfect little dumplings. She taught me how to pound chicken with a tenderizer “just-so”, and didn’t get upset when I kept mixing up the order of dipping those chicken pieces into flour and then an egg wash before dropping them onto the skillet.


All these memories brought tears and I couldn’t make them stop. I hated it. It made me angry. Why did God allow this to happen? Why couldn’t He take somebody else? Lots of families had two parents; why not take one of them? Why take both my parents? I didn’t like being home because those thoughts usually visited me.


Working made me busy enough to not dwell on the sad part of my life. I enjoyed working at the pizza shop. There was an option to have more hours, as long as a legal guardian signed the paper, and my grades at school were acceptable. Sometimes Aunt Jenny gave me a ride, sometimes my grandpa did.

I didn’t like pizza but I learned how to make it like an expert. The challenge was to sauce the pizza, sprinkle the mozzarella cheese, apply the toppings in appropriate measurements, sprinkle more cheese on top, and slide it into the oven at record speed with minimal waste. I became familiar with the regular customers who ordered extra cheese pizzas, and with the odd ones who ordered pizza with no cheese at all. There were pizzas with artichokes and pizzas with anchovies.


I looked forward to my break when I could get a bag of custom-ordered breadsticks: crunchy, warm, with light garlic butter and heavy sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Since my shift tended to be until closing, the breadsticks dipped into marinara sauce became my regular dinner. If Grandpa picked me up, I would drive home. Exhausted from the long days, I fell asleep quickly at night.


This school and work schedule became a stable routine. That is, until I got my driver’s license…







[image above taken from Little Caesar’s website]

8. The Quirky Couple


Uncle John and Aunt Jenny knew how to have fun. On most weekends, they drove to the local grocery store to stock up on meat, vegetables, drinks, and watermelon. A short drive later the whole family arrived at a park next to the beach. There was a lively debate about which picnic table was best. A colorful plastic table cover was placed on top, the food items arranged, and the grill started. Then relaxing time.


This was new to my sisters Linda, Lisa and I, who were now part of their family. We could sit on the grass or bench. We could walk around. We could cross the street and dip our feet in the water. Our mom had almost drowned as a child, so as a result we were kept far away from anything deeper than a bathtub. Here we played volleyball and tossed Frisbees. Eventually the aroma from the grill would call us back to the picnic table, and we enjoyed a delicious, mouth-watering meal.


Other days the family went to an aquatic center. It was several hours of good plain fun. The warm pool, the slides, the different depths of water, all of it was fascinating. However, it was a confusing time. Although I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help feeling guilty for having fun. Am I even allowed to enjoy things like this? Is it bad that I’m not thinking of my mom or my dad or my siblings while I’m at the park or at the pool? Does it make me a bad person that I forget about what’s going on in life and just enjoy the thrill of the long slide and the enormous splash? What if my other siblings weren’t having as good experiences as we were in this family? Thoughts such as this dominated my mind.


A family friend, Mr. Es, came to visit. It was somebody who grew up with Mom’s family in her village. Mr. Es was a jolly-looking fellow with neatly combed brown hair and kind eyes. He opened his arms and clasped my sister Linda and I in a great big bear hug. He talked quickly, as if he was in a hurry and had to be somewhere else.


“Girls, I am so sorry for what you’re going through. I grew up with your mom, and her sisters, and her brothers. We belonged to the same group of friends when we were young!”


I didn’t know how to respond appropriately.

“Ah. Interesting!” I really didn’t know this person. Was I supposed to ask some questions about him? Perhaps about the village?

“So, small world, and here you are, right?” Making conversation wasn’t a strong skill for me.


Mr. Es didn’t seem to mind. He got to the point quickly.

“Girls, I know nothing will bring your mom back, or make anything better. But I want to try. Can I buy you something? What’s something you always wanted but don’t have?”


“Oh, we have everything,” I responded politely.


“No, no, no, that’s not what I meant. I know you have everything. I know Uncle John and Aunt Jenny got that covered. I mean something special. A toy? A cool trinket?” He motioned his hands around as if waiting for ideas to come to him. “Is there something your friends have but you don’t?”
We had everything we needed, and being asked on the spot was slightly nerve-wracking.


“You have your Mom’s old civic once you get a driver’s license. What about a bike? Or new shoes? How about roller blades? Do you have those?” He was watching our face expressions closely and was able to tell where our reactions gave us away. He got some more practical information and a few days later we received our gifts. I got a brand new pair of roller blades with the rubber wheels, not the cheap plastic ones.


On Sundays we piled into the family van and drove to church. This was a different church than where we went with our mom. Girls and women weren’t required to wear the traditional head covers. There were a lot more people. It was exciting. There were lots of guys and girls who made up the youth group.


After church the members of the youth group would go eat and hang out. Uncle John was flexible to the point where he allowed me to go with them, as long as Linda was with me. We had to make sure somebody from our neighborhood was also going, because he or she would be our ride back home. Uncle John would verify with the guy or girl, usually guy, to find out where the youth was planning to go, and to make sure we would arrive home by a certain time in the evening. Uncle John was generous, too. He would flash his pearly whites and with a grand gesture he would whip out his wallet. After thumbing through it, he’d pull out a twenty-dollar bill and hand it to me saying, “Here’s money for you and Linda to buy some fancy lunch with your friends. Don’t spend it all in one place!”


For some reason it felt so awkward to take money from him. I felt like I owed him the money back. Linda and I would try to make that money last as many Sundays as we could so we wouldn’t have to admit we didn’t have any and then have him give us another twenty. On lucky occasions, some guy from the youth group would pay for our meal. I never could tell whether it was because a guy was trying to impress us, or because he just got a paycheck, or if he was simply being nice. Other times we would eat at the mall where we could get cheap food like McDonalds fries and ice-cream cones, or if we were very hungry, a teriyaki bowl. I didn’t look forward to restaurants, because those were on the pricey side, but when youth went there, Linda and I would split an appetizer. The popular evening place was a donut shop. We could easily spend an entire evening there, eating fresh donut holes or apple fritters.


Shortly after this new living arrangement, an interesting pair came to visit us. The duo was tall and thin, and very animated, as if they drank energy drinks instead of water. The blonde woman, Mrs. Tee, was dressed elegantly while Mr. Tee was a dark-haired man who wore a bright polo and shorts. They clarified that this visit was not to become friends with Uncle John or Aunt Jenny, but just to have a chat with Linda and I. In fact, a chat was not enough. How about they take us out to a fancy sit-down restaurant? It took a bit of convincing Uncle John, who finally relented because this couple explained they were just trying to do something nice to some kids who lost their parents.


The car ride consisted of small talk and directions to a restaurant. Linda and I kept exchanging glances. We were certainly aware that there were different types of people who had unique ways of responding to others’ problems. Lots of donations had accumulated as a result of mom’s passing. It ended up being distributed in some form or another, mostly going to the family who was building their own house. But what were these people up to? It’s not like we never had a meal outside of the home.


As soon as we got seated, the waiter brought the water glasses, and left us with the menus. Mr. Tee was practically bouncing in his seat. He was surely addicted to coffee or something.

“Alright, here we go! Now we can talk. Wait, first decide what you want to order. OK, done?”

Mrs. Tee was evidently less caffeinated, she told Mr. Tee to calm down, to give everybody a minute.


I was growing more curious and didn’t want to waste time studying the menu options. I selected the first soup and salad listed while Linda chose an appetizer.

“Wait, girls, that’s it?” Mr. Tee’s eyes widened. “No, that is not enough. Get something more, get a main dish!”


I glanced at the prices in that category. No way.


“Don’t even worry about the cost! This is our treat to you, get whatever you want!” He must have read my mind. The waiter showed up to take our orders, and as we didn’t add anything to our original choices, Mr. Tee took it upon himself to order the most popular dish for us as well.


“Back to our talk. When we heard about what happened to your family, we cleared out our schedule to drive all the way up here.” He looked at me. “Since you’re the oldest, we specifically wanted to talk to you. This affects your sister too, but mostly you.” He directed a glance of acknowledgment towards Linda. “Now, your uncle, does he treat you well?”


“Of course!” I nodded, wondering where this was headed.


“Yes. Naturally. They just took you in, lots of attention is still focused on them, of course they’ll be doing their best. For now. But listen to me. I need to say some things that nobody will probably ever tell you, but somebody has to.” He leaned forward. Mrs. Tee placed her hand on his arm as if to offer support.


What in the world was he going to say? A slight shiver ran down my spine. I leaned back.


“Your uncle has his own family. He has a wife and a few kids. All of a sudden, boom, he got a few more kids. They are not his own. He never asked for them. But here you are. Now right now he’s treating you as well as his own kids because everything is fresh. All eyes are on him in this community, in your church. But some time will pass and you will notice he won’t be treating you like this anymore.” He paused for air. “You will notice he’ll be treating his kids better than you. You won’t be able to talk to him like to a dad. You’ll have conflicts. But he won’t be doing this intentionally. He will just default to the natural state of how he was used to doing life, before you all came into his family.”


Our waiter arrived with the food. I sat frozen in my position as the plates were being passed around. What was I supposed to do with this information? The feeling of being a burden was a thought that flickered in my mind periodically, which I would push into a corner and forget about. Now it sprang up from the corner and was glaring at me. Great.


Mr. Tee took a whiff of his food. “Mmm, absolutely delicious!” he exclaimed. The way he ate his meal was every bit as energetic as his words were.


“Now, here’s what you have to do.” I let out a burst of air that I didn’t know I was holding. So there was a solution. “You’ll need to become financially independent. Does your uncle give you money?” I explained about the twenty-dollar bills on Sundays. He tapped his fingers on the table. “And do you feel guilty when you take that money?” I nodded.

“Ah-ha!” Mr. Tee slapped his hand against the table. “There you have it, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It starts like that, and then you’ll feel how much of a burden you are that you’re living in his house, and that he’s providing all the necessities for you, and the list goes on and on. So, you’ll need to get a job. Get a job, and you’ll have money! This way you won’t have to rely on your uncle to give you money for a snack, you can get it yourself. You can buy clothes, your own cell phone, whatever you want! You can start making your own decisions. Work hard, work as hard as you can, work your way up as far as you can. Become independent!”


I nodded. That made sense. I saw Linda finishing her appetizer. I should probably eat some of my soup. It had cooled down, and there wasn’t much taste. I tried the salad. It wasn’t any better. But Mr. and Mrs. Tee were paying for this meal, and it would be rude to leave everything untouched. I managed a few bites. There was some kind of lump in my throat that made it hard for the food to go down. Where was I going to get a job? I couldn’t even drive. Driver’s Education classes were offered at my school, I had just signed up. The only jobs I could think of were the summer jobs at the berry fields at that moment. I tuned back into the conversation. Mr. Tee was chattering about something funny his mother-in-law had done.


He managed to finish the story, his meal, and whatever Mrs. Tee left on her plate all at once. He jumped up. “We have one more stop to make before we take you home. In case you ever need money or help, we will always be available, alright?”


We stopped by the bank where he opened an account and added my name to it. There was $100 in the account.


“If you ever need money, take it. Here’s the little card with all the information on it: the account number, my name, my phone number.” He handed me a small white card with the information written on the back. “When this money runs out, call us, we can deposit some more, you hear?” I nodded. I suspected Uncle John would not be very happy about this bank stop. Mr. Tee again seemed to read my mind. “Don’t you dare tell your aunt or uncle about the bank!” He received a strict glance from his wife. It must have been about his tone, because he continued in a softer manner. “They don’t need to know about this, it won’t hurt them. This is merely something for you and your sister, as a way of us helping you. OK?” I nodded again.


They arrived at our house, came in for tea, and Mr. Tee entertained everyone with his peculiar stories until it was time for them to leave.


A few days later I was taking care of errands with Grandpa when the words “Accepting Applications” caught my eye. I noticed they belonged to a poster on the window of new construction next to our grocery store. The poster showed a Little Caesar’s Pizza logo and “COMING SOON” in bigger font. I asked Grandpa to stop the car and ventured inside. A worker wearing a white construction cap looked up. I asked how to apply and he pointed to a cardboard box with a stack of empty applications inside. I took it, filled it out, and turned it back in. A few weeks later I got called in for a group interview, and so began my first official job.