Although the surroundings may have changed from harsh bleak winters to sunny ocean filled days in Florida, the family drama didn't stop. We went from being a middle-income family to dirt poor. Since my mother had never had any formal educational training, she went to work at a donut shop, making minimum wage, which, back in 1986, was about $3.35. Hence the reason she still used my father's credit cards.
School also became different for me. In the suburb of Chicago where I attended high school, things seemed like "The Breakfast Club". Yet, in the panhandle of Florida where the elementary, middle and high schools were all on the same campus, and the school mascot was an actual bulldog that belonged to one of the seniors, a redneck midget, things seemed more like "Deliverance."
I had decided once we left Chicago I would reinvent myself and began shaving my upper lip (despite my mother's warning the hair would grow back darker and thicker) — not if I keep shaving it, I reasoned and also decided to go by my middle name of Leah. My hair was dark and wavy back then, and since I kept to myself for the most part, I was nicknamed Allison after Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club.
The fantasy world of my television family was not to end though. My younger sister, Lisa, whom I shared a room with when we first relocated to Florida, began physically abusing herself either by slapping her face, stomping on her foot with the other or pinching herself until she bruised. She had to get rid of the "bad thoughts," which plagued her mind. I endured this trauma for three months until I moved out to the living room and made the couch my new bed. It was at that time I began watching the show WKRP in Cincinnati and began connecting with the characters the same way I had done with their colleagues while I was living in Chicago. I even used that show as the basis for a short story I submitted in a writing contest my English teacher entered me in.
My sister eventually went to a treatment facility for nine months that took care of troubled teenagers. After I graduated from high school and eventually started college at a small community campus in the panhandle, I started dating a real guy this time. He was a chef, and I worked as a waitress while putting myself though college. Every Wednesday night (which happened to be my regular night off from the restaurant), I would settle into my comfortable couch with a bottle of White Zinfandel and watch, 90120 and Melrose Place. I was past my phrase of pretending the characters were my family or friends, but I still used the shows as a temporary escape.
Years later I would meet four single girls living in New York City who would help mold my dating and lifestyle habits. Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha. I found traits of all of them within myself. Samantha more so when my drinking and promiscuity heightened in my early to middle 30s then as my life settled down in my 40s more so like Carrie and Charlotte. At work, I was more like Miranda. A no-nonsense bulldog fighting for the top results for the client.
You see that's why the death of James Gandolfini affected me so deeply. He wasn't just a great actor. He was my hero, an heir to all those who had saved me before. I am wise and mature enough to know that television characters aren't real, but I suppose a little part of me still longs for the fantasy and escape even at age 43.