Less than a year passed from the New Year until the day my parents marriage ended. I know now that it had been ending for a long time, alcohol flowed like a river through their marriage until it was worn down, and one day it split as if an ax had come down on a dry piece of wood.
It was summer and my girlfriend and I were bored. Point Defiance was the popular hangout on the weekends, a large tip of land covered with acres of pine trees that looked out over cliffs onto sparkling expanses of Puget Sound. We needed a ride there.
I found my dad in the front yard. The morning sunlight reflected of his bald head, making it shine like a sugar coated jawbreaker. When I called him, he startled.
“Dad, we want to go to the Point, can you drive us? I asked, flashing my most persuasive smile. If the smile didn’t work I would resort to pleading and cajoling. My Dad was a sucker for his youngest daughter, I was his only biological child. I knew by that age there was little I couldn’t get his to do for me.
“Not today”, he mumbled, avoiding my gaze.
“But dad, we’re bored, and if you take me today I won’t ask you to take me for the rest of the week, and ….” I stopped short as he turned to face me. I squinted into the bright sun as I looked up, trying to get a glimpse of his face. I had learned to gauge his moods by then. If he had enough to drink he was a jovial man, not enough and the slightest provocation would throw him into a rage. His eyes, the same hazel green as my own, were usually a good indicator.
As he looked down at me his eyes were clouded, watery. “I’m in trouble,” he said, nearly choking on his words.
There was something beyond seeing my father cry for the first time that frightened me. Just beyond the tears threatening to well over his lower lids, I saw terror. He looked away quickly and retreated back into the darkness of the garage.
I walked back into the house, slowly taking the steps up to the dining room, my feet feeling heavy as if coated with cement. My girlfriend left when I told her my dad wouldn’t drive us. I sat in the living room filled with my mother’s paintings, wondering when she would get home. My father remained in the garage.
I looked at the ceramic mortar and pestle that sat in the corner, holding a healthy green Pathos plant. It was white with the letters RX emblazoned across the front of it in Gold scroll. My mother loved the pathos plant because of its ability to thrive in spite of neglect. My dad had received the planter as a gift for his years of dedicated service to the drug company her worked for, where he labored for hours on end in huge rooms filled with monolithic computers. The turquoise clock above the kitchen sink ticked loudly, adding to the surreal quality the time I spent there waiting.
Soon my mother trudged up the stairs as she returned home from art class. She wore her usual drab green and tan worsted wool coat over a white turtleneck. Her hair was brownish-blonde, no, “dishwater blond was what she called it. She hid her brilliant but icy blue eyes behind thick tortoise shell glasses. No one would have noticed that she was beautiful.
“Have you seen dad?” I asked. I searched her face to see if she understood that something was wrong. There was no indication. She wore her usual weary expression, lips turned down at the corners as she headed for the kitchen sink, lifting the bottle from beneath it in its brown paper wrapper. She muttered something under her breath as I heard Dad’s arduous footsteps coming up the stairs. The ice cracked as she poured the room temperature Rose over them.
“I was hoping we could all take a walk,” my dad said, looking plaintively at my mother.
“What for? I’ve got a lot of things to do this afternoon—“ she began, not looking up, taking a long sip from her glass.
“It’s important” He said, “Please” he repeated his request. He was cracking now; I saw it start up near his forehead. He looked small to me, a boy of eight or ten, pleading for something needed desperately, unable to convey the urgency of his dilemma to my mother.
“All right. Fine.” She shrugged back into her coat with great effort.
We walked down the stairs together, out the door, down the driveway. The sun was high in the sky by then but the shade of many evergreens kept the air cool. I could smell the forest, dust; I heard kid’s voices as they played carelessly in their backyards. I followed them as we walked silently to the trailhead in the woods near my house. My dad motioned for us to sit down. I shivered in the warm air as I sat on a tree stump. Its rough edges jutted into me.
His hands shook as he swung them, apparently not knowing where to start. He reminded me of the pictures I had seen of Nixon on TV right before he was implicated in the watergate scandal. A man who had been caught. Unlike Nixon, my dad made no attempts at a brave smile.
My mother sat rigid on her stump, her arms crossed. She looked at him with distaste, a look I had only seen washed away by several glasses of wine.Once he began, the words seemed to spill out of him. “I’ve been fired from my job. I was drinking cough syrup at work that had codeine in it and I was caught—caught stealing it.” He looked warily at us as he paused briefly. “I went to a clinic. They…they told me that I am not addicted”. He added the last part matter of factly; his tone implied that he was reassured by that news and that we should be too. He had taken a good news bad approach. The part about the clinic was the good news.
Confusion and fear spread through my young body, filling even the smallest spaces.
What was my dad using codeine? He stole it? Did that make his a thief? What was going to happen to us? I looked over at my mother for clarification, I wanted someone to help me make sense of it, and I wanted reassurance.
But my mother was not looking at me. The furrows at the corners of her mouth deepened. “I want a divorce,” she spat between clenched teeth. She stood suddenly and started walking fast back to the house.
My father began sleeping in the basement, perhaps hoping my mother would change her mind, or maybe unsure of where he should go. Just a few days passed before my mother announced she was going out. She had given up her wool coat and thick glasses for a short flowing skirt and heels. The Eagles were big then. The song “Lying Eyes” was one of my favorites. It seemed clear my mom was going to see another man. I saw her as the betrayer. I felt bad for my Dad, who it seemed was hoping things would blow over. This arrangement went on for awhile until my Dad finally decided he was going to have to go live with his sister. So he left, and that left my Mom and I.
My mom asked me who I wanted to live with. I thought about it, but knew there was no choice except my Dad. But by then my Dad was unemployed, broke, not able to take me in. They had it written in the divorce that both parties agreed it would be in the best interest of the minor child to live with the father. So because of circumstances my mom kind of got stuck with me.
My mom made it clear right away that the rules had changed. In so many words, and in so many less she made it clear she was done with the title and identity of “Mother”. All those years of holding herself back, suppressing her creativity, her sexuality, her self, had taken their toll. My mom was ready to cut loose.
My mother began dating frequently. I took advantage of her frequent absences by having friends over for parties. She often stayed out all night and then went straight to work, but one night she came home at the crack of dawn to change her clothes for work. She found the house strewn with beer bottles and assorted teenagers passed out, including me with a boy in her bed. I didn’t really understand why she was so angry. I was only living exactly as she was.
So I kept my boys out of her bed and after that I suppose there was a crazy rhythm that developed. She would party and have sex, I would party and have sex, and one time we even unknowingly had sex with the same man. One of my brothers friends, who was extremely attractive. It was a free for all. It was the 70’s, pre-AIDS, and drinking, drugging, and sex were on the table. That’s just the way it was.
My mom joined a group called Parents without Partners. I don’t know if there were any good or decent people in the group, I only met the ones that grant a lot and used the group as a singles dating service, trading partners at will. That’s what my mom did until she met Tom. Tom was 10 years younger than my mom and long brown sideburns down each side of his face that were reminiscent of the older Elvis. I could hear his tricked out Chevy van with its idyllic scene painted on the side chugging down our street when he would come to pick up my mother. The van was his only possession, that and a pair of worn western cowboy boots that sat in the dining room when he came over, their toes curled up like the shoes on the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.
I dreaded date night with Tom. When he and my mother would return from dinner and dancing they would repeat to what was once my parent’s bedroom, where the sounds of their frenzied passions went unrestrained. They never seemed concerned that my bedroom was right next door. Apparently Tom possessed talents that my father did not. My mother told me more than once about the visit her and father had made to a psychiatrist, apparently because my mother wanted sex and my father did not. “The Doctor told me I am not oversexed’”, she had informed me with a definitive tone. There is nothing wrong with me.
My Mom and her boyfriend Tom would have sex raucously in the room next to mine. My mom would boast about her multiple orgasms the next day. She was making up for the dearth of sexuality that had been present in her marriage to my father, a man she had come to hate.
So I lay there one night listening to my mom getting off in the bed she had shared with my father just a few months earlier. It was a cacophony. It was on one of those nights that I noticed the sound of my heart beating and became hyperaware of my breathing. I became terrified that if I were to go to sleep my heart would stop beating or my breath would cease. And that began the pattern, it seems, of the hyperanxiety, the terror, the obsessive compulsions.
Another passion that my mom and Tom shared was drinking. Tom liked Jack Daniels, he preferred to leave his sitting out on the kitchen counter as opposed to hiding it in a cabinet. And they both loved wine. They began making their own, something my mother and father had once done together. They turned one of the rooms in our house into a winery. The heat was always down in the rest of the house to conserve on finances but the wine room was warm and toasty. The small room was filled with the smell of yeast and the dripping sound of wine fermenting. Their wine was really strong, it could knock you on your ass with one glass. I know because my friends and I stole it when we didn’t have anything else to drink.
Tom was a parent in name only. He had two kids living somewhere, with one of his ex wives. “Mom and Tom”, as they so unaffectionately became known as, loved to talk about what a pain in the ass kids were. Ungrateful. Burdensome. When Tom moved in he wanted me out. And my mother made it clear to me that when he was move his needs were to come first. Only his music would be played on the stereo. BobWills and his country crooners. He would sit at the head of the table in what he claimed as his chair, chain smoking Pall Malls until thick tendrils of smoke filled the dining room. When we had family events, at Christmas or Thanksgiving, and my siblings would come to visit, everyone had to be sure not to sit in Tom’s chair, at the head of the dining table. If anyone did, he would pout and sulk, slam things about the kitchen and then give my mother the cold shoulder.
In order to demonstrate his affectionate for my mother, Tom enjoyed putting on shows for her children. When any of us were present he would make out with my mom on the couch, where their loud smacking and cooing noises were over dramatized. Tom also enjoyed coming on to my girlfriends. My mom would just giggle and say, “Oh, Tom!” She thought he was so cute. Even though I hated his guts with every ounce of my adolescent body, one Christmas I went out of my way to get him a gift I thought he would enjoy, a Bob Wills album. He went to hug me after he opened it, and then he stuck his tongue down my throat. He tasted putrid like cigarettes butts that had marinated in stale beer. My mother simply looked the other way.
Tom seemed to make my mother happy. Her paintings went from dark and melodramatic to colorful and light. Their relationship lasted over a decade. I’m not one to begrudge my mothers happiness, or her seeming bad taste in partners after my father. I know now that she had unhappy in her marriage and that divorce set her free. But the timing was bad. Her need to relive her adolescence collided with my need for a mother, and I lost.
But if my mother was one thing, it was that she was consistent. She never apologized for her choices, and always considered herself as someone who gave the best years of her life to her children. For years I wanted my mother to acknowledge that she had made bad choices, but that day never came.
Several factors converged after that that made it easier for me to drink alcohol. My parents were largely absent, and not overly concerned with my drinking. The summer before my 10th grade year I spent almost every day at keg parties, coming home only to sleep, change, and eat. One day my mother asked, “What are you going to do when school starts and you have to sober up”?
“Oh, I’ll manage”, I answered, my voice dripping with sarcasm. I basically did as I pleased.