La Puente is a barrio, with low-income families 30 miles east of Los Angeles. I was fourteen years old, from Santa Monica and pissed off that my Probation Officer (P.O.) was even considering putting me into a foster home that didn't have a beach.
"It looks kind of ghetto," I said, squinting through the windshield at some Cholos drinking beer on a lawn.
"Its better than juvenile hall," she snapped back.
At 14, having done my first stretch in Juvie, I didn't think it was all that bad. I had made a lot of friends and learned how to dance from the black girls.
My dad was a widower and a man who couldn't handle one more disappointment. I happened to be that disappointment.
"I don't know what to do with her anymore," He said, as we stood in front of the judge. "She's out of control."
It was true. Having discovered alcohol, my GPS no longer worked and sometimes I couldn't find my way back home. So the judge declared me a ward of the court and the state of California became my new legal guardian.
As we pulled up in front of the brown stucco, I grabbed the small garbage bag with my belongings and followed my P.O. up the path.
A beefy woman, with black curly hair and rolls of pasty flesh for a neck greeted us at the door.
"You must be Wendy?" Miriam said.
"Yes, she is," My P.O. chimed in. "AND... she is extremely happy to be here. Aren't you Wendy?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said, looking down.
My P.O. left within minutes saying she had more cases to attend to. Afterward Miriam invited me to sit down on the worn couch to get 'acquainted.'
"You can call me mom if you like," Miriam said. "If you're comfortable, that is?"
No, no, no, I thought to myself. My mom is dead and I'm not looking for a replacement either.
My mom had been sick, crazy sick. At times I thought something evil had crawled up inside her and was looking out from behind her eyes.
When I was seven years old she cut her wrists, crawled into the tub and pulled a shipping trunk full of photos of us kids on top of her. My mother was pinned down by the weight and literally drowned under her own baggage.
Miriam gently patted me on the knee, bringing me back to the moment.
"Your foster sisters will be getting home from school soon and they're very excited to meet you," She said, with a smile. "Oh, and by the way we're Mormons ya know."
"Oh, nice," I said, swallowing hard. "That's great."
Religion was a load of crap as far as I was concerned. My mom was a devout Catholic and look where it got her. I'd given up on God a long time ago.
A few minutes later Nancy, at nineteen, the oldest came bouncing in the front door. She was warm, with long blond hair, a moon face and green eyes that sparkled with bits of amber. She was friendly and I liked her immediately.
She didn't waste any time telling me about Ron, the love of her life and how they were going to be married as soon as he was done serving his country as a Marine.
When the door flew open the second time it was Darlene. At fifteen, she had a beaverish overbite, stiff, crunchy hair that smelled of aqua net and just about as phony as they come.
"Oh my God, I'm so happy to meet you," She said.
Grimacing, I felt my internal defenses flip up.
The foster home was structured compared to what I was used to. We were all assigned chores, had to do our homework and every evening we sat down at dinner to talk about our day.
"Daddy, I got a B on my math test," Darlene said.
Buddy, my foster father was from the Midwest. He was an angry man, with gray hair and a slit where his lips should be. But even he could soften when Nancy was around.
"Play something for us, would ya Nancy?" He said after dinner, his feet shooting out in front of him as he reclined in his lazy boy chair.
"Sure Daddy," Nancy said, lowering herself in front of the shiny Steinway.
With head bowed down she would pause for a moment. Then her hands would come up and her fingers would dance across the black and white keys so lightly, they reminded me of butterflies.
As soon as that first note hit my ears, I would let out a long sigh. Her music was so precise it hung in the air like a cloud. Even the corners of Buddy's lips would turn up in half a smile.
The flip side of hearing her play was it reminded me of all the things I never did. I took piano, tap dance, art classes but always quit.
What happened to all my dreams, I wondered? What was wrong with me?
Meanwhile Darlene and I weren't getting along. She was jealous and always trying to score points and before you knew it I was playing along as well.
Left to our devices we could turn our 'bad childhoods' into some quid pro quo.
"I did lock up in Juvie for seven days for a fight," I said.
"I was in there for two weeks," She'd counter.
It was a classic case of anything you can do I can do better but there was one thing we did agree upon.
Our foster parents had launched a campaign to try to save our souls. Every week they had the Mormon Missionaries come by to preach to us.
So Darlene and I made a sacred pact, come hell or high water we would not convert, no matter what.
As the months passed I was doing better in school and getting more used to being away from home. Then one night at dinner Darlene dropped a bomb.
"I've got some good news," She said. "I've decided to convert."
"You what?" I said.
"Oh Darlene that is so wonderful," Miriam said, holding her hands to her heart.
Darlene gloated while I leaned back and lacerated her with my eyes.
I decided right there I would get revenge but I would be patient and wait. One thing juvenile hall taught me is you never give your game away.
I was still plotting a line of attack when I woke up one morning and it was pouring rain outside. When I walked into the living room I found Miriam crying and Buddy pacing back and forth.
"What's wrong?" I asked, just as Darlene came in behind me.
"Sit down girls. I have something to tell you." Miriam said, taking a deep breath. "Nancy and Ron were just in an accident."
"Oh my God, what happened?" I asked.
Miriam explained how Nancy had driven with Ron to the base so he could get another pass. Apparently with poor visibility due to the rain, someone had entered the freeway going the wrong way and hit them head on.
I swallowed a lump in the back of my throat.
"Ron is dead," She said, tears running down her cheeks. "And we don't know if Nancy is going to make it yet."
Not Nancy, I thought. Please not her!
This was the bane of my childhood existence. Nothing turned out right, not just for me but for anyone. It was just more evidence in my airtight case that God was a load of crap.
Miriam and Buddy went to the hospital while Darlene and I were left to hold down the fort. I stared through the television most of the day as we waited to get some news.
In the early evening the phone finally rang. I looked over at Darlene before I got up to answer it.
"She's stable now," Miriam said, from the other end. "But its still touch and go."
When I told Darlene the news, in spite of our rivalry, we embraced and sobbed with relief.
Without realizing it something had shifted. For the first time in my life someone else's tragedy dwarfed my own.
Miriam and Buddy were at the hospital a lot during that period so Darlene and I picked up the slack around the house.
It would be six months before we were allowed to visit Nancy. However, nothing had prepared me for when I walked into that hospital room.
Nancy's head was completely shaved and she was skinny, all hard edges and protruding bones. Her eyes had been knocked out of their sockets on impact and they looked like they'd been put back wrong. Her teeth were lined with silver braces and she had a jagged scar where her eyebrows use to be.
The strong odor of sickness combined with ammonia hit me and suddenly I couldn't breathe.
"Don't be scared," Nancy said. "It's still me in here."
"I'll be right back," I said, turning to leave.
I walked down the corridor until I came to a porcelain water fountain and threw up in the basin. The sight of her-had made me sick.
Six months after the accident Nancy was finally released and allowed to come home.
I remember feeling awkward and not knowing what to say but a few weeks later Nancy sat down and began to play the piano.
How the hell does she do it, I wondered? How does she even go on?
One day, while we were alone, Nancy told me she was at peace with everything.
"Really?" I asked.
"Don't get me wrong. I miss Ronny alright but when I was in the emergency room, I saw an angel and he told me Ronny would be okay."
"And you believed this, this.. angel?"
"I choose to believe," She said, meeting my gaze.
Maybe it was just that simple. She made a choice to believe and it gave her the ability to go on. I blamed God and it gave me an excuse to self-destruct.
The next 25 years of my life were riddled with drug abuse and run in's with the law. Not until I was completely broken that my airtight case against God finally cracked.
And although I may not believe in a Mormon God or even my mom's Catholic one, what I do believe in, is having an ounce of faith beats carrying a pound of fear any day.