“I did it.” I frantically assured, while being cornered by bystanders. “It was me, I put my foot on the gas.” When I woke up on the morning of August 30, 2000, I was an average eleven-year-old. The summer was coming to an end and my days would begin with the dreadful decision of, “what cereal am I going to eat today?” It was a hazy August morning and I started my day with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. I was aware that the sugary cereal would scratch the roof of my mouth, but I enjoyed each self-sabotaging bite. I had my morning shows. It would start off with Katie Couric on the Today’s Show. I was always fascinated with news, and even though I was young, I wanted to feel as if I knew what was going on in the world and form my own opinion on it. I’d wait until Al Roker gave his weather update to prepare for my next show, The Maury Show. I loved to study the guest’s body language and found the lie detector test episodes to be intriguing. This was my eleven-year-old life. A bowl of Cap’n Crunch, Al Roker’s seven-day weather forecast, and figuring out whether Chad from Bakersfield was the father of ten-month-old Liam or not. Life was decent.
“Put your foot on the brake!” The incompetent officer shouted. I nervously looked down strapped with my seatbelt and glanced up to see my uncle’s face staring back at me for the last time.
I was always a dreamer but also a loner. I feel loneliness and dreams really go hand in hand. While some kids raced to play manhunt after school or tackle football at the local park, I raced home to get to my dolls, to get back to the world I created. It was a lot safer and quieter there. I would schedule Barbie’s hair appointments accordingly. Did my mom get upset when she’d find, “Dawn’s,” hair covered in the bathroom sink? Absolutely. But the look on Dawn’s face with butchered bangs made it all worth it. I used to take shampoo bottles and pretend they were awards. It wasn’t an Oscar necessarily but just an award, where at that moment, people listened to me and cared for who I was. Then my brother would bang on the door, “Samantha!!!!! I need to shower!” And I was brought right back to my loner reality, suffocated by what I would learn as an adult as, debilitating anxiety, and fled the bathroom with butchered bangs, Dawn.
When the white van hit my moms, Cadillac, you didn’t think this story would be told by an Italian WITHOUT a Cadillac in it, did you? I didn’t think much of it. I was alarmed but the accident was just a block away from my house. If you’re lucky, when you’re a kid you feel safe when your near home. Nothing bad can happen in front of your local pizza joint when you’re naïve and hopeful for the future. It’s a stoop you sit on to talk about boys and if you’re going to the Friday night dance. Not a corner where you see your uncle die in front of your eyes.
Before Netflix and the instant gratification that is our internet, Blockbuster was the place to be on a Friday night. The perk to being born by immigrant parents is that you can kind of bend the rules a bit but not too much. I once tried to convince my mom that an, “F,” stood for, “Fantastic,” but she wasn’t buying it. What can I say? Math was never my strong suit. But when I rented the movie, “Girl Interrupted,” and my mom questioned my choice, I assured her, “Mom, that’s Winona Ryder, she was in Beetlejuice, remember?” There was something captivating about the movie cover and the film’s review. I lost count of how many times I watched the dark drama before I had to return it back. A fire was ignited into the sheltered shyness of a dreamer that weekend. I wanted that Herbal Essence shampoo bottle to be a real award.
The cops came to the accident scene quickly. Lyndhurst is a small congested town consisting of four main roads, dominated by hair and nail salons. It’s a town where you can get anywhere in approximately two minutes. The cop asked my mom for her license and registration. I was left in the car while the adults tried to figure out what happened. In the distance, my great uncle gestured. I thought random, why is he here? I shrugged and heard the cop tell the haggard man who hit into the family Cadillac to move his white van. And that’s when my mom’s car went rolling with me in it, alone. Who knew the car was still in the drive?
Pre-K was the phase of life where I found out that I couldn’t hang out with my mom all day. I was the hysterical crier. I didn’t care if I was only in that classroom for two hours a day. Every day was one big, “get me out of here.” The nuns would come to try to calm me down but Jesus himself couldn’t descend down to console a stubborn child who wanted to go home and get back to Dawn. There was a winter celebration that was taking place before Christmas. The Pre-K class was doing an ensemble, where the girls dressed like glittery fairies, and the boys were dressed in full winter gear: overcoats, scarves, hats, the whole unattractive works. My Pre-K teacher suggested it would be best that I stick standing unnoticed with the boys, worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle being on stage. I think the nuns were onto me. I stood in the back in a large overcoat, covered with a red scarf watching all the girls in my class prance pretty shining and carefree, heckling me for being with the boys. I didn’t understand it then, but I felt like something was wrong with me. Why was I different? Was it because I was ugly? Why wasn’t I able to shine? If this stumbles into the hands of anyone I went to Pre-K within 1994 I am putting this in writing for my four-year-old inner child, even if you all looked ridiculous, I wanted to be a glittery fairy.
When the car began rolling with me in it, everyone frantically jumped out of the way. You know how it is, people are nosy, and they crowded around the scene. I heard the sound of desperate screams, “get out the way!” And witnessed leaps into bushes. I was scared because we were on top of a hill and I thought, “this is it, the car is going to roll down the hill, I’m dying.” It’s amazing how many racing thoughts you have in the seconds before you think you’re going to die. The cop screamed, “Put your foot on the brake!” But I was frozen strapped into the passenger seat, I looked down and thought, “I don’t know which pedal the brake is.” Then I looked up and made direct eye contact with my uncle and time stood still. How did he get there? I thought. My uncle looked at me straight in the eye towards the car as if he knew it was his time to go. Theoretically, he was seventy-seven, I was eleven, at that moment, he made a choice, it was either me or him.
In Italian American culture, Sweet Sixteen parties are honorary celebrations for young women. A blossoming young adult, she gets to choose her gaudy dress and gets a party hosted at a venue filled with loving speeches of how proud everyone is of her turning sixteen. Then the teenager gets a nostalgic dance with her father usually to a sappy Italian folklore tune. Where guests crowd around, teary-eyed, snapping memorable snapshots. It was the week before my sixteenth birthday and a friend of mine was having her Sweet Sixteen party at a local venue. I was excited to attend. Joking with all my friends at the table, flirtations running high amongst a bunch of sexually awakened teenagers, and then the father-daughter dance happened. My dad left when I was eight and my parents officially divorced when I was fourteen. My dad wasn’t in my life, no matter how much I desperately tried to convince him to love me. The selfish narcissist was always too busy bringing me back souvenirs from his lavish trips with his seasonal flings to ever make time for me. When I watched my friend at the time dance with her dad I choked up, went into the bathroom, and felt shame for feeling the way that I did. I told my mom I didn’t want a Sweet Sixteen, but the truth is I was embarrassed my dad didn’t love me like I saw my friends dads love them. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I was that little girl in Pre-K again, standing behind the glittery shining prancing fairies. Why not me? Was it because I was ugly? Why wasn’t I able to shine? It was then that I bought into the misbelief that other women were worthy of shining, not me. My inner sixteen-year-old wanted a Sweet Sixteen and wanted to dance with a father who loved her.
“Sam, why are you always missing school?” My elementary school friends would curiously ask. Embarrassed, I’d answer, “I have to go to the doctor.” I wasn’t missing multiple sixth grade school days because I had to go to the doctor, I was missing school because I had to go to court to fight against my own blood, what is said to be called, “family.” I was only in the sixth grade. Can I just get back to my bowl of Cap’n Crunch? The rolling car eventually hit a parked car which brought my mom’s car to a standstill. I snapped my seatbelt off and jumped out of the car. I was absolutely numb, but the shock soon faded. I had a manic episode at the scene where I started screaming, “this is my fault, I killed him, this is my fault!” Everyone’s ears perked, dollar signs clouded greedy minds. I convinced myself for years that my uncle’s death was my fault. I grew up with a family disowning me. Dirty looks accompanied by whispers when I saw a family member in public. I blamed myself for years. I prayed to my uncle every night to forgive me and assured God to take me if he wanted too because the feeling of not being worthy to live was taking over my childhood. I am sharing my story, twenty years later, because when I was eleven news articles were published by my own blood against my will, falsely implying as if I was some kind of child murderer when in reality I was a child existing in an unfortunate freak accident.
At the end of the film, “Girl Interrupted,” Lisa, played by Angelina Jolie has an attack because Susana, played by Winona Ryder is getting out of the rehab facility they all acquainted in. Feeling stuck, Lisa viciously confiscates Susana’s diary on her last night in the hospital, revealing how Susana really feels about the troubled group. A stressed teary-eyed Susana states, “I’ve wasted a year of my life, maybe everyone out there is a liar, maybe the whole world is stupid, ignorant, but I’d rather be in it.” My past does not define me, and although I spent many sleepless nights praying to not exist, I decided, I’d rather be in this life. I wanted to give up on my dream of becoming an actress about seven times just in the last week, one hovering doubt a day. I learned in this journey that no matter how much spiritual healing or amount of therapy sessions, the feeling of fear will always poke in announced. The difference is, is when fear comes knocking on my doorstep now, I welcome it inside. Expressing Southern Italian hospitality, I ask fear if they would like something to drink, maybe some coffee, or an espresso. And then I confidently reassure fear that I am happy it stopped by to remind me that I am human, but also to not get too comfortable because at the end of the day, this is my house, and I make the rules. Because although this race is not an easy one, I’d rather be in it, then standing on the sidelines, watching prancing frilly glittery fairies.
I haven’t gotten that “break” moment yet in my acting career but that doesn’t discourage me. My brand is to do the work, always improve to be better, never be bitter, and the rest will eventually fall into place. Who knows maybe it’s you at this moment reading this article who will throw me a pass. If not, that’s okay too. If anything, I’d be content if this article landed into the hands of the nuns of Sacred Heart Church to show them how much I’ve grown over the years. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a shampoo bottle and a speech waiting for me.
Follow Samantha Algieri on Instagram @samanthalgieri