Mom keeps a wicker basket filled with photographs in her bedroom upstairs. When she’s on the phone and I’m bored, I can spend hours rifling through the contents of each envelope, investigating the past and studying the details of each situation and event. I scrutinize multiple copies of the same exact picture with only the slightest variations. Countless weddings, baptisms and other sacraments, my dad and uncles in an array of standard military uniforms. My sister, Judy and I, taking turns on a tricycle. I hold thin strips of negatives up to the light, hoping for secrets not yet revealed.
I can’t help being drawn to that frayed black and white print of my father as a teenager. The one where he’s pointing a rifle at an older man’s head. I don’t recognize this other person. Mom says it was Daddy’s favorite uncle. That he’s dead now, but not because my father killed him. It’s hard to imagine Daddy having a favorite anything.
There’s also that photo of Dad and Aunt Joan on New Year’s Eve. They’re propped up next to each other at a party, in front of the little white Christmas tree on top of the TV set in my parents’ living room. A hand is pushing their heads together so they kiss. I can tell just by looking at my father’s face, he is drunk. I hate this picture. How could my mother let her sister act like that?
Mom swears there’s nothing to worry about. “Honey, there isn’t another woman in this world stupid enough to put up with your father’s bullshit. I couldn’t give him away if I tried.” I fold the photo in half and bury it beneath the others.
I search for three nearly identical snapshots of my cousins, Michael Kevin, Jeanne Marie and Dennis, taken a few years before I was born. Toddlers of varying ages, dressed only in undershirts and cloth diapers, loosely supervised on the roof of the apartment building in Manhattan where our families lived. Where our mothers hung laundry, smoked and gossiped while the men were at work. After supper, they all returned to the roof to relax and enjoy a few too many beers. Wearing sunglasses and holding cans of Schaefer, each of my cousins smile for the camera, as if they’re already in on the joke.
I brought the picture of Jeanne Marie to school one time last year. I showed it to all my friends in the fourth grade schoolyard and told them it was me.
The last photograph is the worst, but I find myself staring at it the longest. It’s from last summer. I’m sitting cross-legged on a towel at low tide in Edgewater Park. We’re visiting my cousins at their house on the Bronx side of the Long Island Sound. I’m dressed in a yellow and white bathing suit that no longer fits me. I insist on wearing it because I want this place to be the beach, but it’s not. There’s sand, yes. Sort of. It’s more a combination of crushed bricks and mud.
Shattered beer bottles, garbage and the occasional dead fish litter the shore. Empty, dark blue mussel shells slice into the bottoms of my feet. Ropes of seaweed wrap around my legs when I’m in the water. I get scared and scream. The other kids tease me because I can’t swim. They sing the “Baby, Baby, Stick Your Head In Gravy” song.
All the grown-ups, except my mother, are drunk. She’s angry with my father because he went up the road with some of the other men and hasn’t come back yet. He always ruins everything.
In this awful picture, I’m eating a hamburger. There’s ketchup on my cheek and chin, a can of Shasta soda between my legs. My pale, white belly flops over my bikini bloomers. I’m getting fat, and I don’t know how to stop it. I can’t imagine why anyone would take this photo. It looks like I’m about to cry.
Today is the day I separate this memory from the others in the pile. I tear it into small pieces and those pieces into tiny ones. I flush them all down the toilet and try to pretend I’m someone else.
I have a crush on J.P. Rogers. He lives around the corner in the light green house. He’s younger than me by two years and three months. I know that seems like a lot, especially when you’re boyfriend and girlfriend. I get how people in love should be around the same age, but I really like him, so I don’t care what anybody thinks.
There was a birthday party in his backyard last weekend, with a sign on the fence that read J.P. is 8! That’s how I found out how old he is. A bunch of kids were swimming in the pool, all boys, screaming and yelling curse words at the top of their lungs. Mr. Rogers told them to knock it off a couple of times. They barbecued hotdogs and had cake. I watched everything from my parents’ bedroom window.
J.P. has two sisters, Susan and Joanne. Susan goes to high school. She’s really quiet. I hardly ever see her. Joanne’s a year older than my sister, Judy, but she got left back and now, they’re in the same grade. She’s mostly nice, I guess. She acts tough when she’s with a crowd. Mrs. Rogers lets Joanne wear tube tops, and I saw her smoking a cigarette outside the pizzeria on Westchester Avenue.
I wrote mine and J.P.’s initials on the bottom of one of my sandals with a heart around both sets of letters and an arrow through the middle. I showed it to one of my friends and told her we were going out. That I went to his party, and I was the only girl. I could tell she was jealous of all the attention I said I got. It made me feel good, even though I lied.
The other day, I saw a Spaldeen, sitting in a pothole on Zerega Avenue. From the sidewalk, it looked really clean, practically brand new. I couldn’t believe somebody just left it there. Mom says no going in the street without asking first. She treats me like a baby. But I looked both ways for cars. Plus, I made sure no one saw me.
I wrote my name and address on the ball and threw it over the fence into J.P,’s front yard, near some of the toys and junk he plays with. I guess I hoped he’d find it and bring it back. But the ball never moved from the place where it landed. So this morning, I opened the gate and went in to get it back. That’s when their dog started barking and wouldn’t quit. J.P. came from behind the house and turned the hose on me. He was laughing the entire time, even when I begged him to stop. He sprayed me in the face and the seat of my pants as I ran down the block.
I rang and rang the doorbell until Mom let me in. My teeth chattered and I cried so hard, she could barely understand what I was saying. She peeled me out of my shorts and bloomers right there in the kitchen, drying my hair with one towel and wrapping another under my armpits.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing, I swear.” She never takes my side.
“You stay away from that boy. Do you hear me? I’ve told you a hundred times.”
“How come he’s like that?” I sobbed.
“Just leave him alone. He’s not right in his head.”
She doubled up some tissues and shoved them up against my left nostril.
“Blow,” she demanded, squeezing my arm.
I leaned against her belly and gave a weak puff through my nose.
“C’mon,” she said. “You’re not even trying..”
I sat at the kitchen table coloring, while my mother finished making supper. The whole while, I prayed she wouldn’t say anything to Mrs. Rogers. I’ve seen that woman fling J.P. around when she’s angry. I don’t want him to get in trouble.
I fucked my back up somehow yesterday. I bet it happened when I was with that boy from Long Island, Glen. On the fire escape stairs after the parade. Or the other boy whose name I can’t remember, but I don’t think he ever told me.
There’s three medium-sized knots kind of in a line, right above my ass. And two more along the big bone that goes up and down. It hurts when I press on them. So of course, I keep pressing.
Crawling toward the subway, my head pounds with every step. I’m late for homeroom again. I try coming up with an excuse I haven’t already used on the nuns at Grace Business Institute for Women. One they can’t fact-check, like a fight on the platform or a fire. Something that might invoke sympathy as opposed to their general disdain. You poor girl, New York is so dangerous. As long as you’re okay, dear… That would be nice.
I can hear the train coming from the last station. So I take off running up the first flight of stairs, through the turnstile and onto the next level. “Hold the door,” I yell, hoping someone will help. But no one traveling into Manhattan this morning cares that I’m hungover as fuck. They’ve got their own problems.
I clear those last few stairs in slow motion. I envy each and every miserable face aboard that train as it pulls away. I walk the length of the platform to the front, with a growing concern that I might throw up. And I do, just beyond the tips of my shoes. Liquid barf splashes across my flesh-colored pantyhose. I move back toward where the center cars open so no one will know it was me who puked. Maybe a few people do, but I can’t think about that right now. I watch from a distance as other commuters skirt around the mess I’ve made.
I don’t even like the Paddy’s Day Parade. It’s cold and boring. The music is ugly, and everything moves so slow. I’m no fanatic when it comes to being Irish, but everyone always goes, and I don’t want to miss out on any of the action.
We all met up at Kenny’s on East Tremont Avenue for a few Bloody Marys. They’re a new drink for me —a breakfast drink. How I love starting the day in a bar. Being completely open to whatever stumbles into the loose itinerary of getting wasted. Before long, we were on the subway, singing and passing bottles of liquor around. We headed into Central Park for more drinking, looking for people we knew and making friends instantly.
He was by the bandshell. The first boy, Glen. There was blood all over his face and across the front of his shirt.
“Your nose looks broken,” I said.
“It might be, but I’m not gonna worry about that today. I’m here to have fun.” What a great attitude.
He and his pals sported varsity jackets. Assuming they were athletes, I was impressed. He said he was from Commack, Long Island. That seems really far away. I wish I was better at knowing stuff like what happens in Lacrosse and where places are located. I wondered if maybe he’d let me wear his jacket.
We paid five dollars to get into a dark, warm bar where none of us were carded and we could use the bathroom, which is nicer than peeing in the street. They gave us a ton of drink tickets, like at the carnival. I found a bunch more on top of the cigarette machine and on the floor next to one of the toilets. Why would anyone leave their tickets behind? I wore them with pride around my neck.
This supergroup of old and new companions co-opted tables and booths as if we owned the joint. Large trays brimming with refreshments arrived and kept arriving. Beers, shots and Kamikazis. I said ‘yes’ to every round. I involved myself in conversations where I could only hear every third or fourth word.
Glen drained his pint and announced, “I’m off to see my Nana.”
I didn’t want him to leave. To leave me.
“Don’t go,” I begged, hanging from his arm.
“I won’t be long,” he shouted over the music. “She’s right up the block.”
“I’ll come with you.”
This is great, I thought. I’m meeting his family.
I didn’t know where we were going, but he grabbed my hand as we staggered through the crowded, rainy streets. Dudes were fighting, girls were crying and there was vomit everywhere. The city was filthy with garbage and bad decisions.
By the time we got to Lenox Hill Hospital, I wasn’t sure why we were there. We made out in the lobby. I pressed all the buttons on the elevator. The people riding with us were pissed.
“Wait here,” Glen said.
I flopped into a wheelchair in the hallway, closing my eyes and wanting to lay down. A while later, he passed me in the corridor.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Oh, shit,” he said, smiling. “I fucking forgot you were there.”
I hated thinking this guy was stupid because I liked him, but I realized he might be.
“Do you wanna see Nana?”
“C’mon.” He pulled me into a room where a frail old woman was asleep in the bed. “She has cancer,” he drunk whispered. “She’s on her way out.” She did look very sick. And dead. “Nana, there’s someone I want you to meet.” He shook her tiny hand which was covered in tubes connected to various machines. “What’s your name?” he asked.
I know I already told him my name. “Mary,” I reminded him.
“Nana, this is my friend, Terry.”
I tried to correct his oversight, but I could tell he didn’t care. This whole visit was a dumb idea.
When we returned to the bar, most of the familiar faces I came with were gone. There was no one for me to share what just happened. Suddenly, getting home seemed like a lot of work, so I kept on drinking. I followed what was left of the group to another watering hole where I lost sight of Glen.
But there was that other boy, same kind of jacket. I went outside with him, around the corner and down some steps.
“Where did Glen go?” I asked.
“He had to meet his girlfriend.”
“Are you from Commack, too? Is it near here?”
“What does it matter?” he muttered, as he covered my mouth with his. He smelled of sweat and damp wool. I felt like a failure as he struggled with and complained about my bra. The bricks scraped my shoulder blades and tore up the green blouse I borrowed from my sister’s closet. “You’re heavier than you look,” he said when he tried to pick me up.
A doorman came to the top of the stairs. He banged his flashlight against the railing with a warning. “Get the hell out of here, you animals, before I call the cops.”
This second boy was angry that he didn’t get to finish. And even though I kept apologizing, he hardly spoke to me the whole way back to the bar, except to say, “Shut up already.” He wouldn’t help me look for my coat, either. And it was freezing last night when I finally caught the train home to the Bronx.
I’ll never understand why people love parades so much. I hate them.
Mommy makes me and Judy stay with the shopping cart when we’re at the A&P. We can’t go down the candy aisle by ourselves. This means I have to hurry up and scour the shelves for loose m&ms and Good & Plentys when she’s not looking.
Once when I was searching on my hands and knees, I saw a mouse. He stared right at me. I don’t eat anything that’s wet or has dirt on it. Only clean, dry candy. And not if it’s wrapped in paper, like Tootsie Rolls. They’re too big to just take. And also, they make my jaw hurt from all that chewing.
Judy always gets nervous about the candy. She thinks it’s stealing.
“It’s free if it’s not in the package anymore,” I tell her.
“You’re gonna get in trouble,” she says.
I feel a little guilty, I guess, but I still keep doing it. I love candy.
On Friday when we were at the A&P, there was no loose candy anywhere. I even checked the section where they keep the cake mixes. Sometimes, there’ll be little chocolate chips lying around. But this time, nothing. They must have cleaned the whole store.
When Mommy stopped to talk with Jennifer Troccoli’s mother over by the eggs, I snuck back to the candy aisle. I slid a big bag of m&ms to the back of the shelf and tore it open with both hands. I shook a few out so it looked like what’s usually there and filled both pockets of my coat. Some for me, and some for Judy.
As soon as we got home, I told my sister I had a surprise. When I showed her, she got mad.
“I don’t want that candy,” she said. “You stole it.”
“I found it.”
All weekend long, I’ve been afraid she’s gonna tell, but she hasn’t. Not yet, anyway. If she does, I’m gonna say she’s lying. Besides, I don’t have the candy anymore. I ate it all.
So, Mom and I were in the JCPenney at the Willowbrook Mall, not long after Desmond was born. I’m guessing he was maybe four or five months old at the time. Everybody knows that babies love to shop. We shouldn’t deny them, despite their limited understanding of currency, discounts and most other things.
Waiting my turn at the register, I held Desmond in one arm, two rompers and a package of bibs in the other. I bounced him gently and sang into his soft, smiling cheek. A customer standing directly in front of us turned when she heard me singing, “You are good. So, so good.” Who could possibly be that good to have a song written about them? I’d want to know, as well.
“Oh, he is beautiful,” she said.
“Is he your first?”
“Second,” I replied.
“Aren’t grandchildren special? I have five now.”
Other sounds kept leaving this woman’s mouth, but I couldn’t hear any of them. My brain had locked on the word “grandchildren” and froze there paralyzed, unable to perform its job of interpreting language and responding to basic verbal queues.
Grandchildren? Is she kidding? I thought to myself. I’m 39 years old. Do I really look that bad? I lurched away from the line, searching for my mother. I found her in the Intimate Apparel department, removing white brassieres from their boxes and testing the elastic. By the look on my face, she knew something was wrong.
“Honey, what’s the matter?” she asked. “You’re as pale as a ghost.”
“Someone over there”— I pointed in the direction of the customer service desk — “She thinks,” I paused. I still couldn’t believe it. “She thinks I’m an old lady, like her.”
“Who? Where is she?” Mom was furious that I was upset. She demanded more information. Together, we pushed the baby carriage to the Kids’ section so she could hate this person with her very own eyes.
“There she is,” I said. “Lavender sweater.”
My mother and I stood there while the offending party gathered up her purchases. We stared as she headed toward the escalator. Mom grabbed me by the elbow and loud whispered in my ear.
“There must be something wrong with her, Mary. Maybe she’s retarded.”
My mother loved me so much, she didn’t think twice about calling a perfectly sane woman a mental patient so I could feel better about myself. Would your mom do that?
We’re in the middle of a commercial break during The Big Bang Theory, which isn’t my favorite program, but these boys think Sheldon is hilarious. In my opinion, some of the material is a bit racy for nine and eleven year olds, but I can’t bring myself to sit through another episode of Kick Buttowski: Suburban Daredevil.
“It’s when you touch your body in a special way, and it feels really good.”
“Oh,” Rory scratches his head with the pointy end of his Spirograph pen. “I do that, you know.”
“Really.” I must admit, I am surprised. Not just with my youngest child’s behavior but his complete lack of self-consciousness with regard to sharing these details.
“Oh, yeah. All the time.”
“You do not. Desmond vehemently disputes his brother’s claims of self-love.
“Rory, you aren’t doing masturbation. I would know.”
“Sure, I am. Especially in the shower, when I wash and stuff. I do it like every night.”
“That’s disgusting, Bro.”
“No, it’s not. And besides, it’s private.”
“If it’s so private, then shut up already.” I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“That’s enough, fellas. Masturbation is a natural, beautiful thing,” I tell my sons. And even though I wish I felt more convinced of this statement, I want them to believe I am delivering the truth. “But it’s also a pretty sensitive subject, so you probably should keep the details to yourself.”
One thing I appreciate about my children is they do seem to be listening to what I have to say. They don’t always cooperate, but their ears, brains and hearts seem to be working together with basically good intentions. Parenting is a big responsibility. I try to give them as much information as I can. They’re gonna need practical resources in order to survive and hopefully thrive in this modern world.
“What does it mean to be a closeted homosexual?”
“Well, first of all, it’s not a polite thing to say.”
“Because it may or may not be true. To suggest someone is hiding in the closet means that person doesn’t feel safe enough to share whether he or she likes boys or girls.”
“Why does it matter?”
“Then how come people care so much?”
“Because they’re nosy. And afraid of stuff they don’t understand.”
“Why do closeted homosexuals have to hide?” Rory asks.
“Maybe they haven’t completely figured out their feelings yet. They could be nervous about what family and friends might say. And some folks can be very mean.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I like boys and girls.”
Desmond sits on the rug beyond the edge of my bed. I don’t actually see him slap his hand across the side of his own face, but I can hear the sound it makes. “Oh, God,” he mutters under his breath.
I issue a mild warning. “Knock it off, you.”
Our older son has strong opinions. And although broad-minded in the fields of science and technology, he struggles with emotional issues. This subject matter clearly presents a challenge to his linear thinking.
“You can’t like boys and girls at the same time,” he tells his brother. “You have to pick one kind.”
“Is that true, Mom?”
“No, honey. You can like whoever you want.”
“So, that means I’m bi-sexual, right?”
I pause for a second and think that one over. “Sure.”
It makes perfect sense that, if given the choice, Rory prefers access to many options. More just seems like a better idea. He has a bold appetite for life.
“What about you, Des?” I ask. “Girls or guys?”
Desmond is thoughtful with his response. At almost twelve years of age, he stands cautiously at the gate of adolescence, looking through the fence. He’s not in a hurry to take on all that confusion. “I think I’m supposed to feel something, and I don’t feel anything yet. I’m not making a decision until that happens.” He rubs his eyes. It looks as though he might cry, but instead chooses to let this awkward moment pass.
“It’s okay if you’re gay, you know. I’m always gonna love you,” Rory says. “I’ll still be in your wedding.”
“And I promise to love you, even if you’re straight,” I tell him.
“I don’t think I’m gay.”
“Fine, whatever. I don’t care.” Rory holds up the piece of paper he is working on, so I can admire his drawing.
“Nicely done, Bro.”
“Mom, Rory probably likes girls more,” Desmond says. “He’s just too young to realize.”
“No. I’m definitely bi-sexual,” Rory insists. “I want it all.”
I check on my parents regularly. I may roll my eyes, but I do enjoy this arrangement. My husband has always been a custodial son with regard to his folks, and that behavior continues to provide a solid example as I recreate myself. I’m sober and healthy. I have a program of recovery. My hands are kept full with the kids, they’re busy little boys. I’ve also been given the opportunity to become a reliable daughter, and for that, I’m grateful.
Mom takes care of Dad, and I take care of her, as much as she lets me. She doesn’t need anybody’s help. That’s why she calls me several times a day for no reason. Because she’s so independent.
“Quick, Mary. Turn on Channel 7. Oprah’s got her fat feet up on a coffee table that’d look perfect in your living room.”
“I can’t now, Mom. Rory got sick in the night, and I’m trying to scrub throw-up from the carpet.”
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” she says. She means it. “Have you got any vinegar? It’ll get rid of that stench in no time.”
“I might,” I tell her. I don’t. “I’ll try it. Thanks.”
“Call me later, babe. Let me know how you make out.”
It’s clear Mom loves watching me in action. I’m raising my family in ways she couldn’t imagine possible for either of us, for any mother. I am gentle, yet firm with these children. There is some yelling, here and there, and the occasional smack. I’m not proud of it. But Desmond and Rory are generally happy and smart and safe. That’s all God, by the way. Well, the smacking is me, but the rest is Him.
“Kindness never worked with you, Mary.” My mother tends to reminisce down Negative Lane. “If I gave an inch, you took a yard. I had to beat the shit out of you constantly. That’s how thick you were.”
Mom doesn’t flinch or hesitate when she shares this memory. She’s simply stating the facts.
“But look at you now, right?”
“You’re a good mother, Mary.”
And there it is. The gift that makes every other stupid fucking thing coming out of that woman’s mouth bearable.
When I was a little girl, I played with my dolls for hours on end. I dressed them and changed their dishtowel diapers. I cooked their pretend meals and propped them up in front of the television so they wouldn’t get into trouble. I put them to bed early when my father came home drunk.
“Go to sleep,” I told them. “Everything will be okay.”
The storm wasn’t nearly as massive as our local weathermen had predicted. Two whopping inches fell overnight while we slept. I am relieved. Snow makes me feel claustrophobic. Even when it’s cold, I try to get out of the house before and after lunch with the guys. Having a place to go and stuff to do helps me feel productive. I like to stay busy.
My mother, on the other hand, looks for daily excuses to not change out of her pajama bottoms. She is reluctant to acknowledge reality, let alone accept it. Unless, of course, it arrives attached to a crisis. A good crisis will get Mom strapped back into her bra and eager to run the show in no time. Even if she’s already pulled it through the sleeve of her smock top and hung it from the doorknob for the night. Without question, drama is her drug.
I call my parents’ apartment and wait for one of them to answer. So often, I have to leave a message on their machine because the TV is up so loud, they can’t hear the phone. This time, however, my father picks up on the second ring.
“Hey, big fella. What’s going on?”
“Not much,” Dad says. “Just watching the snow come down on the news.”
“Why don’t you look out the window?”
“Forget it. Where’s Mom?”
“You mean my beautiful bride?” he asks.
“You know I’d never say that,” I tell him, and we both laugh.
Despite how nasty my mother can be, the Dad I have now is playful and good natured. Before he fell and hit his head, he willfully ignored her foul temper. But these days, it’s almost as if he doesn’t even notice how angry she gets, and that makes her even madder. I can hear her bellowing in the background. My guess is he might have left a butter knife on the counter. Maybe he didn’t flush the toilet properly. Or wipe his own ass properly. For all we know, he might be breathing too much. Anything can set her off and does. HIs joy is her pain.
“Can you go get her for me?”
“Sure,” he says. My father is a loyal dog,
I can almost feel my mother grab the receiver from his hand. “Give me that,” she says. “What is it, honey?” She’s in a hurry to get back to her rage.
“Just wanted you to know I’m heading down the A&P when the kids wake up. Can I get you anything?”
“Don’t go,” she says. “It’s brutal out there.” I glance out the kitchen window as she attempts to outline the remainder of my day for me. There’s snow in the grass, but the sidewalks are clear. The sun has returned, and birds are playing in my driveway. “Stay inside until tomorrow,” she tries to insist. “There’s no reason to drag those babies out in this shit.” My mother has decided she doesn’t need groceries, and neither should I.
I hear noises directly above where I’m standing at the kitchen counter, folding laundry. The sounds of an ill-defined argument between brothers, maybe even something physical.
“Goddamn it,” I say out loud.
“What’s the matter?”
“They’re supposed to be resting. Can you hold on a minute, Mom?” I walk over to the bannister and yell up toward the ceiling. “Gentlemen, what’s going on?” No answer. “Boys?”
“Nothing,” they reply at the same time. Their short, bulky shadows are visible against the wall at the top of the stairs.
“Don’t tell me ‘nothing.’ I’m not deaf. Come where Mommy can see you.”
The two of them shuffle toward the steps. “We’re fighting,” Rory says.
“It’s just that I want to play with Little People, and Desmond also wants Little People. But then, he took the Airport Guy, so I punched him.”
“It really hurt,” Desmond adds, rubbing his shoulder for emphasis.
“I’m coming up there in a minute,” I tell them. “I’m punching both of you.”
“No, don’t!” Brightly colored pieces of plastic litter the carpet as they bolt from the landing and tumble down the corridor.
“Don’t you dare lay a hand on them, Mary,” my mother warns when I return to our conversation.
“Sorry, Mom. I’ve gotta follow through this time.” I say it loud because I know they’re listening from one of their obvious hiding spots. “You hear that, fellas? You’ve got your grandmother on the other end of this phone, crying her eyes out. She’s begging me not to dole out the punches, but I told her I have to. Nothing else works.”
“Mom, no,” Desmond pleads. I picture him behind the towel rack in the bathroom. “We’re sorry. We love each other.”
“It’s too late for that, son,” I reply. “I have no choice.”
“You’re not really gonna hit them, are you?” my mother asks.
“I most definitely am, so you should probably hang up now. It’s about to get ugly here.”
“You know, kid, I regret belting you and your sister when you were their age.”
I pause for a moment. It almost sounds like an apology – until she keeps talking.
“But make no mistake, you deserved it. Especially you, Mary. My God, you were the boldest bitch.”
I fight the urge to disagree with her, to defend myself against her memories. There is love in my mother’s voice. I hear it, and I can certainly feel it. So I leave what she says alone.
“Promise me you won’t hurt my precious angels.”
“What’s that, Grandma? You’ve changed your mind? You want me to punch them extra for you? Well, I don’t know if I’ll have the strength, but I suppose I can try.”
“She’s coming,” Desmond whispers through the crack in the door.
“To punch us?” Rory asks.
“C’mon, we need better hiding.”
They dash through the hallway and pile into the closet, pulling the door closed behind them. There is giggling. The kind that reassures me my children know who I am. And everything is okay.
I like him so much, and I’m pretty sure he likes me. But how can he be 35 years old and not have a girlfriend, a wife, children? There’s gotta be something wrong with him. God, I hope not. Maybe he’s desperate like me, and I just can’t see it. He seems lonely, so that’s good.
Dave Killian has a lot going for him. A serious computer job, a nice place to live in Manhattan. He wears dress shirts and suits that he takes to the dry cleaner. He does the same with his laundry. They wash and fold his clothes there, which must cost a fortune. He owns a bicycle and furniture. He buys paper towels in bulk, an extra tube of toothpaste for when the first one runs out. He carries an umbrella on days it might rain. Who does that? He held it over our heads when we left the bar the other night.
Did I mention he likes to drink? Which is awesome. I like to drink. Shit, I love to drink, and I’m good at it, too.
Goodbye, nagging guilt about all the problems people say I’ve caused. So long, persistent fear of being alone for the rest of my life. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I have a new boyfriend. I’m not a total reject, after all. This guy is proof that anything is possible.
It feels good having someone to confide in, not that I can tell him everything. I don’t want to scare him off. But he didn’t even flinch when I told him I had a kid. I make like I see him a whole lot more than I do. I gloss over the particulars of his care, so Dave doesn’t think I’m a shitty mother. But am I? I want to say ‘no.’ Instead, I change the subject in my head. I keep drinking and doing what I’m doing.
Over pints of cold draught beer in the pubs along Second Avenue, we take turns trading personal adventures. My stories are always better. I love being the winner. It doesn’t happen that often.
I think about Dave while I’m at work. Is he thinking of me? He is so handsome. And smart. And good. I want to be good. At least, I want him to think I’m good. I wish I could call and see if he can get together later, but I have no extra money for hanging out in the city. He is generous, but I can’t just assume he’s gonna pay my way.
I start making a mental list of who I can borrow from and how much I can get. I do this all the time. Thirty here, forty there. The people I work with are easy. They believe what I tell them. It’s really not that big a deal. I always pay it back. Basically, so I can ask again, but still. I leave a note on my boss’s desk explaining why I had to leave early. Kirin threw up in his classroom, and I’ve gotta go get him. I’ve never picked my son up from school a day in his life. I only wish these lies could be the truth. I gather my things, walk across town and look for the guys I usually buy dope from. After that, I stop into the bathroom at the Burger King, hold the door shut with my foot and do a little.
I find a pay phone right outside and call Dave. We make plans to meet.
“Where do you want to grab some food?” he asks. “We can go wherever you like.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” I say. “Let’s get fucked up.”
I don’t tell Dave about the drugs I do. We can drink. Drinking’s cool. All the other stuff is my business. I just get the feeling he won’t like me if he knows. And it’s not like I’m doing this shit every day, even though I kinda am. Maybe I just notice it more now that I’m not by myself as much. A new relationship definitely makes some things a little harder to get done, but falling in love is worth the extra effort.
Being with Dave is so much fun. His apartment is nothing fancy, but it’s more than what I’ve got. I’m still on a twin bed in my sister’s basement on Long Island. I fixed the space up real nice, though. Judy let me borrow some of their old wicker patio furniture. I wiped down two chairs and a little table, put my stereo in the middle. I have a bunch of books I wish I could read, and I draped some Christmas lights around. They make everything look prettier.
I drink the same way I did when I lived in Queens and get just as high, but I try to keep a low profile around my family. I don’t want my sister to worry or her husband to give me shit, so I pee in a paint can in my room once I get going. This way, I don’t have to make as many trips upstairs. I pour the contents out the little half window that faces the backyard.
I know I can’t stay here forever, and all of a sudden, I feel like I need to leave. I want to be with Dave.
He keeps his wallet on a nightstand near the bed. This morning, I waited until I heard the shower running before I took twenty three dollars. I left some cash, two tens and a five, so he doesn’t get suspicious. Let him think we spent it last night. We drank enough, that’s for sure. I also stole nearly all the quarters from a bowl filled with change on his bureau.
“I’m going in late,” I tell him. I’ve already started thinking of how I’m gonna spend my new money. He hands me his key so I can lock the door when I leave. We make arrangements to have lunch in the afternoon. Now I definitely need to show up at work, if only so we can meet.
On my way to the subway, there’s a definite spring in my step. I can’t believe my good fortune. Somebody wonderful likes me. I still worry about the questions that might come up, though, the more time Dave and I spend together. How can I explain not having a driver’s license? Or a bank account? Why my teeth keep falling out of my head? What’s really going on with my son? I care about these things, I do. I just can’t seem to figure out how to fix them.
My mood shifts from joy to panic. I transfer seven or eight little pills from my pants pocket to just inside my lips. I try to make some spit to help move them past my tongue.
As I pass the bodega on the corner, I pause to admire the fresh bouquets of cut flowers lining the front of the store. I do some quick math and make a decision to purchase a large bunch of tulips. I return to the apartment, filling two glasses with water and arranging them in a pair of Dave’s boots. I step back and admire my work.
I push my shopping wagon through the parking lot of the A&P. It’s early, maybe 8 o’clock, and already humid as a motherfucker. The kind of weather that makes you feel like you’ve never showered in your life, and breathing deeply may kill you.
I’ve been awake for awhile. I obsess about how long. I try to add up the time but more time keeps happening, and I have to start over with my counting. Then I can’t remember the amount I figured out, so I just keep doing new math. Small sums are much easier to keep track of.
I slept from 5:15 to 6:40 yesterday morning, which is only eighty five minutes. Eighty five minutes is not enough time for sleep. I try looking at the experience as if I’m part of a science project. It’s fascinating when you consider how much time has passed since I first woke up but that would involve bigger numbers, and I just can’t wrap my head around that kind of effort. All I know is a lot of hours have already occurred, and I’ve been conscious for every single one of them.
My reaction to people who look well-rested waffles between curiosity and resentment. More and more, I feel as though everyone is sleeping at night except me. I wish my husband would get off my back. I decide when it’s time to go to bed. I don’t get what his fucking problem is. Just because I don’t want to sleep when he says so. Really? If you’re tired, go lay the fuck down and leave me alone. It’s not like I’m hurting anybody.
Look around at all this shit I have to do. Half-painted, half assembled projects. Trays of beads and little trinkets. Tupperwares filled with plastic flowers, felt and ribbon. Styrofoam and canvases. I can’t seem to get ahead of any of these brilliant ideas. I’m finding it more and more difficult to finish anything I start. By the time I’m ready to sit down and get to work, I’m too high to sit down. I bang around the house, puttering and organizing. Thinking thoughts and making plans I can’t recall with any clarity the next day.
I break things I can’t fix. I come up with new ways to make simple tasks harder to accomplish. I rearrange all the furniture in the middle of the night, and in the morning, I move everything back to exactly where it was. I have nothing to show for my efforts.
My husband checks on me repeatedly. “I need you to come to bed,” he says.
“I’m almost done,” I tell him. “Ten more minutes.”
“You keep saying that.”
This friction between us continues and escalates every few hours. I try to lie down by the time his alarm clock goes off.
David is not a stupid man, but he doesn’t know the half of what I’m doing. I’m pretty good at hiding. I replace the wine and beer when the bottles and cans get low. I keep my pills and whatever I need on me at all times. I clean up after myself. He can’t ever find out what’s going on. He won’t understand.
“This has to stop,” he says, as he puts on his socks and shoes. Once again, he leaves for work looking sad, with giant bags under his eyes.
“It will, I promise. Please don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad, Mary. I’m exhausted. What you’re doing isn’t fair.”
I know he’s right. I should cut back on some of this shit, but I really don’t think I can, so I don’t even try. I can’t bring myself to make any changes in my behavior. My drinking and drug use has become so enormous, I can’t touch it except to feed and protect the compulsion.
I hate that Dave is pissed again. I bet he won’t call either, and if I call him, I’ll have to apologize. I almost wish he’d fight. That’d take the focus off whatever this is.
I’m only telling you now for the sake of this story. No one else knows how bad it is but me, and I’ll never admit to any of this out loud. I’ll take my last breath denying everything.
I wonder if I could sleep for a little bit when I get home. I’m almost out of pills. I’ve been crushing up what I have left and swallowing small portions wrapped in toilet paper, but it’s not working anymore. I’m in that awful place where there are no more boosts to get me up from where I’m at. My body is done in a way that’s hard to explain. You know the big, blue balloon man that blows around in front of the old Treasure Island on Route 23? Unplug that shit, and you have me.
I can’t buy wine until 9 o’clock. Maybe I could hold off until tomorrow.
I load up all the food and stuff into the back of my truck. I just bought several days’ worth of groceries that I’m in no condition to prepare or enjoy. But I get afraid when we have no food in the house. I’m afraid that David will leave me. I’m scared of most things, almost all the time.
I give the empty metal cart a weak shove. It rattles along and comes to a stop a few feet away. As I open the driver’s side door to get in, I hear a shrill voice and see an older woman heading toward my vehicle, pointing and gesturing wildly. I turn around to look for the person she’s upset with, but I’m the only one there.
“Hey, buddy. Buddy!” she says. “That’s right. I’m talking to you.”
I can’t imagine what I’ve done to make her so angry. I scramble into the Blazer, start the engine and jerk away from my parking space.
“You’d better stop,” she shouts at my window. “Buddy, that’s rude!” I keep going.
I watch her drag my abandoned wagon across the pavement and guide it into the cart corral with the others. Several customers watch her rail on. At the red light, I check my rearview mirror to see if she is chasing me. There is only one car behind mine, jam-packed with young boys. Their music is so loud, my steering wheel vibrates.
I pull into a spot in front of the shops on Wanaque Avenue. I call Dave to say “I’m sorry.” I describe the crazy lady at the A&P. How aggressive she was. How she thought I was a dude. He asks if I’m okay.
“Yeah. I’m just tired.”
“Where are you now?”
“Why don’t you see if you can get some rest?” In his voice, there is nothing but love and unhappiness.
“Okay,” I tell him, and we hang up.
I sit in the car for 35 minutes and wait for the man who owns the liquor store to unlock the door.
Her last boyfriend was her first boyfriend. This one is her second. She is sixteen years old.
She and Bachelor #1 dated for five and a half consecutive months, so you could say she’s had a little experience with how being in a relationship works.
She never saw the break-up coming, though. She thought they were doing just fine. Then at the end of the summer, he got his hair permed. It changed him. He started wearing pleated pants. Holding his cigarette like a lady. Asking her questions about boys she went to grammar school with. It was weird.
She still can’t put her finger on where things went wrong. What she did to make him so unhappy. How she ruined everything. But she’s determined to get it right this time.
Bachelor #2 is an altar boy at church, and the only interesting reason to pay attention on Sundays. Another server approaches her after mass and lays the ground work for their introduction.
“My friend wants to know if you’re going out with anybody.”
He disappears into the sacristy with the big crucifix on that long, gold stick. She waits for a few minutes to see if anyone is coming back out, but her dad says they have to leave. She describes the brief exchange to her best friend. They try to guess what’s going on. She’s excited that someone likes her.
Once they meet, she realizes he’s always been there. She just never noticed. Over the years, they’ve shared teachers and classmates, school field trips to boring places. This history makes getting to know one another less awkward. He’s easy to be around. Kind, playful and well-liked, which are nice things for a person to be.
Her mother is strict and won’t let them hang out during the week. They chat by phone most nights. She stretches the coil wire that’s attached to the receiver all the way across the kitchen and up the stairs for privacy. Her mom yanks on the cord to let her know when it’s time to hang up. She replays what he says over and over in her head, extracting all the hidden meaning from statements like “I have to go eat” and “I fell asleep.”
Walking home from the church youth group she joined to meet boys, they kiss for the first time. On the corner of Glebe and Zerega Avenues, they stand underneath a street lamp that flickers on and off. It makes a sound like someone is being electrocuted.
Within two weeks she decides she’s in love and tells him so. Not out loud, of course. In a note. She writes and rewrites each sentence carefully until the words are close to what she thinks she’s feeling and what she imagines he wants to hear.
She joins his family for dinner on Sunday afternoons. His mother makes spaghetti and meatballs. There is cake. They sit down together in the dining room, his father at the head of the table. They shout at one another in English and Italian combined. She only understands half of what’s being said, but there is warmth in their voices.
The little sister is twelve, surrounded by brothers and thrilled with the arrival of another girl on the scene. She follows her around with the boundless energy and devotion of a puppy selected from the window at the pet shop. She is old enough for nail polish, but not makeup. This rule makes her life nearly unbearable, but only for a minute. Every song on the radio is her favorite. She is an immediate one-member fan club.
Some days, he waits for her after school. She sees him from the window of her last class, but when she gets downstairs, she pretends she doesn’t and walks right past. He calls her name, and she acts surprised. He carries her book bag over his shoulder, and they hold hands.
When they get to the house, her mother is there. She looks angry at first, but adjusts herself when she sees he is with her. They shoot the breeze on the stoop for a few minutes. He lights her mom’s cigarette with his own, and they share a smoke. He can’t stay because he has a job and responsibilities.
“My daughter doesn’t deserve you,” she tells him.
He responds with a quick laugh. What else can he do?
When they say goodbye and go inside, her mother’s mood darkens. She corners her as the door closes.
“What’d I tell you about all the fucking greasepaint?”
“It’s just eyeshadow, Mom.”
“Go scrub that garbage off your face, unless you want me to do it for you. What are you, trying to look like an easy make?”
“No. You should see what the other girls wear. This is nothing.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn what the rest of your so-called friends look like. They’re somebody else’s problem.”
She stomps up the stairs so hard, her ankles hurt.
“He’s too good for you,” her mother yells from the bottom of the landing. “He’ll figure it out. He’s a smart boy.”
Thoughts of him crowd her adolescent mind. The remaining space is filled with wondering how people see her now. Do they notice the difference? She feels safer, more popular with a boyfriend. Girls who’ve never even looked her way before involve her in top secret conversations about important subjects like sex and other options. She is certain she will need this information and pretends she already has it.
They spend more time at his house than hers. She is always welcome there. More often than not, they end up in the basement. They listen to music and make out on the couch. They do other stuff, too. Go places, get ice cream at Carvel. He’s a wonderful boyfriend. But this is what she looks forward to the most. Being wanted.
The further they go with their mutual affection, the closer they get to having nothing left to experiment with. They discuss next steps and reasons why they should skip over most of them. They move toward intimacy in fits and starts, interrupted by meals and curfews, cautious parents.
“Keep the lights on down there,” his mother says, only half smiling. They are only half listening.
When it finally happens, she is relieved to be done with her virginity. It never felt like anything worth saving to begin with. She is only too eager to trade it in for the excitement of experiences that help her forget who she is.
On Friday nights, she tells her mother they’re going to the movies. Or bowling. Instead, they pool their money together and rent a room at a drab little motel overlooking the Hutchinson River Parkway. Four hours costs thirty-three dollars. Coming here is her idea.
All day long she obsesses about this arrangement. The bold moves she intends to make that will get him to love her even more. Her exposure to the complexities of sex is limited to two films, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love. Reruns of James at 15, especially the episode where James falls for a Swedish exchange student named Christina and becomes a man.
After supper, she swipes two, maybe three cans of beer from the refrigerator, depending on how many are in there. She drinks them while she gets ready for their date. She samples the forgotten pill collection in her parents’ medicine chest. She likes the ones that say “Do not drive or operate heavy machinery” on the label. By the time he picks her up, she is feeling pretty loose around the edges and not as scared to try new things.
Once they’re alone, she takes her clothes off under the blanket and kicks them to the floor. She is embarrassed by the big, white bras her mother insists she wear, with their thick elastic straps and bulletproof cups, her plain cotton bloomers. She wishes she had some fancy underwear, but she’d have to hide it. Her mother looks through her closet and drawers. There’s no way she could ever find out. She’d go berserk and make her stop seeing him.
She wraps her retainer in a tissue and places it on the nightstand. Both lamps and the lightbulb in the bathroom need to be shut off before they get started. In the dark, she can take bigger risks and make believe she’s the kind of girl who knows what she is doing.
Only after they’re done and she’s certain he’s asleep does she leave the bed to pee and clean herself up. She would rather die than let him see her naked. She turns the TV on, creeping back into position next to him. She watches The Love Boat and the beginning of Fantasy Island. They have sex again, but it’s different this time. There is less urgency. She wonders if she should panic or not.
She leaves a big, purple hickey on his neck, hoping he’ll reciprocate. She aches for some kind of proof that their relationship is real. He is hesitant and tries to explain that he doesn’t want either of them to get into trouble. She sulks and promises to keep it covered, so he gives in.
Afterward, they get dressed. She waits outside the front office while he returns the room key. She does not make eye contact with any other patrons in the parking lot.
Walking home, they talk about unremarkable stuff. What just happened between them is over for now, stored away until next time. It’s too hard to concentrate, otherwise. She can’t wait to tell her girlfriends about their daring exploits.
Once she is home, she realizes she’s forgotten her retainer at the motel. He tells her he will find it. As tired as she is, she stands frozen at the front door, willing him to reappear, appliance in hand. Her mother wakes up and starts asking questions. She answers each one with a lie. She pleads with God to not get caught. These are the only prayers she ever prays.
When he finally arrives, he is smiling. She hugs him tightly. His shirt is soaked with sweat. She whispers “Thank you” in his ear. He leaves without saying much.
She goes upstairs to change into pajamas. In the bathroom mirror, she studies the gift he’s left on her throat. She pinches and squeezes at the modest bruise and tries to make it bigger.