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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

These Promises of Spring

Rory did some time in the doghouse recently.  A little too much spirited backtalk, several days in a row.  Unnecessarily bold responses to routine inquiries that, if left unchecked, would surely become a habit with which I will never be comfortable.

"I brushed my teeth already."

"I finished my homework an hour ago."

"How should I know you wanted me to empty the washing machine?  It's not like you said anything."

You get the picture.  So I pulled the plug on Brother's runaway train.  Before it had a chance to leave the station and pick up steam.  And before anybody got hurt.

"No dessert.  No TV.  Three days, my dear," I told him.

Fortunately, these perks are still valuable currency to my almost eleven year old.

"Not fair," he groaned.

"Give me lip, and I'll make it a week."

There was brooding initially, which is always unfortunate because his sour mood impacts everybody in the house.  When one of us suffers a setback, we all seem to take the hit to some degree.  I also cautioned him that my company is a privilege and if it meant anything to him, he would do his best to earn it back.  Off he went to the bus stop on his own, in a considerable huff.

After he left, I reminded myself that this is true.  I am valuable.  Motherhood routinely teaches me how to recognize and safeguard my own worth, while I to try to teach my children about decency.  There's a lot going on behind the scenes with this gig.

Rory returned in the afternoon with his demeanor somewhat softer and less accusatory.  Fortunately, his happy life has a tendency to dilute even the worst cases of situational irritability.

"Mom, Grayson's riding his bike without training wheels for the first time!" he exclaimed as he burst through the front door.

"That's wonderful!  Did you congratulate him?" I asked coolly.

Let's face it.  Last time I checked, he was still pissed at me.

"No.  I forgot."

The disappointment in his voice was hard to ignore.  His kind observation hadn't earned him nearly as much leverage as he'd hoped.  I could tell he would have preferred the more loving version of his mom.  Instead, he was greeted with cautious reservation, and it bummed him out.

Rory took his science notes up to bed with him that evening, while the rest of us watched our favorite TV shows in the living room.

"You can study for ten minutes," I told him.  "Then shut the lights out.  Do you understand?"

"Yes," he replied.  His chin dropped to his chest.

Desmond made sure he laughed just a little too loudly at the jokes coming from whatever program was playing at the time.  So Rory could hear how much fun it was to not be in trouble.

"That's unnecessary, son," I said.  "Unless, of course, you'd like to join your brother upstairs."

Being a parent is labor intensive.  There are so many moving parts.  And of course, I want my children to like me.  But I can't look the other way when they are disrespectful.  They practice their behavioral skills here in my home, but fortunately, so do I.  This is a vibrant testing area.

The following morning after Rory gathered his book bag and jacket, he looked for me.  I was sitting on the edge of the bed in my room, putting on my shoes.  He planted a delicate kiss on my cheek.

"I'm leaving, Mom.  I love you."

"I love you too, Bro."

"Today's gonna be great.  You'll see," he assured me.

"I hope so, honey."

I followed him to the door and waved goodbye.  His positivity was noteworthy.  But as he left the porch, he headed in the opposite direction of the bus.  I waited for a moment to see where he was going.

His little friends were coming up the street.  And as they got closer, I heard him say something nice to Grayson about his bike-riding.
I totally zoned out on the writing prompt recently.  My teacher read the class this gorgeous piece about Spring and cherry blossoms and hopefulness.  I looked across the table at all the seats filled with beautiful volunteers.  Each of us, students assigned the task of interpreting feelings with the help of carefully chosen words. Like that's easy.

What are you doing here? one of the voices in my head asked.  You're not a writer.

Don't listen to her, another one replied.  Just pay attention to the exercise.  You'll do fine.

I made the mistake of looking at my phone.  I love the blinking blue light.  A text from my eldest boy!  The one who'd just about vanished for almost two years, resurfacing only several weeks ago.  A little banged up, perhaps, but remarkably intact.  I'm still thanking God around the clock.

"How is everybody?" he inquired, as if he'd left that morning for the beach and absolutely no time had elapsed in his absence.

"Good.  We're all good," I trembled when I spoke.  No one had seen him.  No address or phone number.  No social media.  "Honey, I thought you were dead."

"Aw, Mom.  I'm sorry."

"So am I.  I love you, Kirin."

"I love you, too."

What it all boils down to is love and acceptance, I suppose, in a broad and basic sense.  I can't change who he is, and he can't change me.  But the feelings are there.  We are trying a healthier approach to being in one another's lives.  And hopefully this time, we'll get it right.

Anyway, I couldn't concentrate on the poem.  My heart was so caught up in how much I love this young man.  All of them, actually.  My three sons, these promises of Spring.  I stole another look at the phone.

Imagine that, I thought, Kirin is taking a shower and leaving for work in half an hour.  This is the most incredible news.

When the messages come in these days, they're still a shock.  Seemingly ordinary details are available to me once again, and they are categorically remarkable.  I tried not to seem so excited.  I wanted to jump in the air and hug everyone in the room.

I think I may have been struggling to forget him, because remembering was so painful.  I had nothing to go on.  No information.  That kind of worry is like grief, only without a body.  It's very confusing.

I hate to admit that I did the same thing to my mother.  Now I understand a little better what she must have gone through.  I found myself praying that God wouldn't make me wait as long as she had to, for me to come back around.  He answered my prayers.

*******

"Are you coming to the bus stop, Mom?" Rory asked this past Monday morning.

Seventy five pounds of books pressed upon his firm, round shoulders, yet this child has no burdens to speak of.  His world is filled with fifth grade fun.  Hardly anything keeps him down for very long.  It's inspiring.

"Did you talk to Kirin last night?"

"No, my dear.  Maybe today."

"I can't wait to see him.  We should take him to the comic book store when he comes.  And the movies.  And the pool.  And J.J.'s for hotdogs.

"That does sound great.  I hope we can do all those things when he visits, " I said.

I only walked Kirin to school twice when he was a little boy.  Where I lived was too far, and I had no vehicle.  I leaned heavily on the excuse that I had a junkie boyfriend in my life, but I was also getting high back then.  I cared about my child very much, but he couldn't count on me.  I became an occasional visitor.  I dangled just beyond his reach, like a carnival prize of questionable value.

I thought about these memories as I finished making up my bed.  Life can be so funny and sad and wonderful and worrisome and excellent.  It's hard to make sense of things sometimes.  I keep God close, and I feel like it helps.

"I'll walk you to the bus, Rory, but only if you promise to hold my hand."

"I'll hold your hand, but only if you promise to let go at the corner."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Be Here Now


It's not like I was against abortion.  I'd already had several by the time Jason and I met.  I wasn't particularly keen on having a kid so soon, and I couldn't imagine he was either.  We'd only been together a couple of months.  But it's not like I had any other big plans clogging up my calendar.  I also think something about being married made me feel differently toward having a child.  Like maybe it would be okay.

I told Jason I'd get the situation straightened out.  You know, take a pregnancy test and inquire about my options.  But I dragged my feet.  I kept putting the appointment off, and the weeks started to add up.

I was worried about that bag of pills.  I didn't know for how long drugs show up in your system or what they actually tested for at a military gynecologist's office.  I didn't want to get my new husband into any hot water.  I was afraid somebody would yell at me because I'd been careless - again.  If I asked about terminating the pregnancy, would they hassle me because I was married now?  Could they actually do that?

I didn't know if abortions were even available in Mississippi like they were back home.  In the Bronx, it seemed as though clinics were popping up everywhere.  I felt like I'd been to almost all of them.  I wasn't quite sure how things worked down south as far as these kinds of decisions went.  Or if there was even a choice.

After Jason left for school in the mornings, I laid on the mattress in the trailer.  I stared at the water stains on the ceiling, each different shape resembling a fetus. Some of them were holding hands.  I felt wetness collect in the corners of my eyes. I thought about my mother, and the tears came easily.  She was probably still really mad that I left.  I was hoping that anger might turn to worry soon.  So when I finally called the house, she wouldn't hang up on me.

I tried to guess how much it would cost to take a taxi onto the base so I could ask about an abortion.  It was unclear if the town of Biloxi even provided either of these amenities.  What if the Air Force didn't allow unfamiliar vehicles onto the premises?  I'd have wasted all that money on a cab for nothing.  Maybe I could walk back.  But shit, I'd still be knocked up.

I wondered if I could convince Jason that keeping the baby wasn't such a bad idea. Babies were little, and it didn't seem like they needed much.  Diapers.  Four, maybe five outfits.  A few toys.  It'd be kinda nice to have something special to take care of.

As time went on, I got too scared to ask questions of any medical personnel.  I was nearly four month along before I worked up the nerve to get a check-up. The nurse who did the examination read me the riot act for not coming in sooner to see the doctor.  She scolded me about the importance of pre-natal care and vitamins.  I felt my cheeks get hot with shame as I sat on the table in my paper dress.  I'd never considered the risks before.  I simply needed my mistakes erased and forgotten as quickly as possible.

For Christ's sake, I just wanted love.  Why was it always so difficult?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Everyday Is Downhill From Here


I had no idea where Mississippi was or what to expect.  I was 21 years old, and I seldom left the Bronx.  I didn't pack up my folding chairs and move to Biloxi because I thought it was a good idea, you know.  I cut out because I was scared shitless.  Once I had my own apartment, I found myself spending time with all sorts of questionable people.  I made the mistake of inviting them over, and they kept coming by.  Getting too close and staying too long.  I didn't know how to make them go away.  So I just left.

Jason was my boyfriend, and he had gone and embarked on a new adventure in the Air Force.  I don't think I was jealous, but I did feel like we should be together.  I don't recall him ever asking me to come.  I do remember me begging, though. Pleading.  And as luck would have it, he was homesick and lonely down south.  So he said okay.

I guess in the back of my mind, I hoped that leaving would get my mother's attention, as well.  If I had half a brain, I would've realized how stupid it was to think that way.  There wasn't a whole lot she could do about my lack of direction once I was gone.  She hardly ever left the Bronx either.
Jason rented us a half trailer in a mobile home park just outside Keesler Air Force Base.  Every morning, he rode his bicycle to tech school, and he was gone until evening.

Life in the trailer park was quiet during the day, except for the sound of air conditioners and the occasional crying child.  The temperature soared to a thousand degrees most afternoons.  Many of the young women that lived there had children they wanted to keep alive, so everybody stayed inside until the sun went down.

One night shortly after we moved in, this young man knocked on the side of our house.  We had few visitors.  He may very well have been the first one.

"You folks got a blow drying machine?" he asked.  "My girl's right in the middle of fixin' her hair, and ours up and died."

I thought this was a strange question, considering Jason and I both shaved our heads and had very little hair to speak of.

"Sorry, no," I told him.

I saw the same guy the following evening, tying an infant's exercise saucer to the rear view mirror of his car with an extension cord.  He plopped a small child into the seat.  She crept from side to side along the width of the pathway leading to the mailboxes, while he practiced cracking a bullwhip against a tree.

"Howdy, neighbor."  He called to me and waved.

"Hi," I replied.  I went inside and locked the door.

I only met his wife one time.  She held a bag of ice to her eye as she stood on our cinderblock steps in the rain.

"You okay?" I asked.

"I suppose," she muttered.  "I'm just having some problems is all."

She asked if she could borrow some money.  I only had six dollars in the house.  I gave her five.  I never saw her or the baby again.

*******

I thought I could get a job as a secretary somewhere, but there wasn't a whole lot of business happening in our neck of the woods.  And by the looks of things in and around town, they didn't need much typing done.  We had a laundromat and a sandwich shop, where they also sold bait and cigarettes.  The folks who worked in these establishments looked like the walls were built around them when they were just children.  Before windows and the labor laws that protect children were invented.

I passed an employment agency on the way to the supermarket one day.  I went in and asked about work.  I filled out an application and handed the woman in charge a copy of my resume.

"You ain't gonna need that," she told me.  "Alls we got here is housekeeping shifts at the Quality Inn.  Have you ever done any cleaning before?"

"No."

"Well, you strike me as a fast learner.  And you look strong, so that's good.  The girls down there can teach you whatever it is that needs doin'."

"Okay," I said.

"Can you start in the morning?"

"Sure."

She gave me a folder stuffed with brochures and a little introduction card with the name and address of the place scribbled on it.  I headed back to the house and shared the news with Jason.

"I got a job," I told him.

"Where?"

"Some motel in Gulfport."  I handed him the paperwork.

"Mary, this place is thirteen miles away.  How're you gonna get there?"

"The lady I spoke to said there's a bus."

"What bus?"

"I don't know."

Early the next morning, I made my way down to Highway 49 and started walking along the interstate.  I was roughly four miles into my journey when I came across that first bus stop.  I waited there for what seemed like forever, watching the sun crawl wearily into the sky.  I panicked and set out walking some more.

By the time I boarded the bus, I was in a pool of sweat.  When I finally arrived at my destination, I felt like throwing myself on every single one of those beds they needed help making.

My domestic colleagues did not embrace me as one of their own.  They had hard lives and big problems.  Loose teeth, mean partners and too many mouths to feed on $3.35 an hour.  None of them cared how fast I could type or what fun I was at parties.  They had shit-filled toilets to clean, bloody sheets to strip and soak in bleach.  Mirrors and bathtubs that looked like who did it and ran.

Sometimes, guests left food and drinks behind in the mini-fridge.  These items were divvied up among the team members assigned to each room.  Liquor and beer were always hot commodities.  But mostly, it was just salad dressing and hot sauce. I found a big video camera hanging off a doorknob once and turned it in at the front desk.  I didn't make any friends that day.

I never did figure out the bus schedule.  And needless to say, my career in the hotel industry was short-lived.  I had gotten into a habit of accepting rides along the highway in the mornings.  Men in trucks on their way to all sorts of jobs up and down the coast.  Most of them were very nice.

But I did take a lift from this creepy dude who pulled his vehicle in behind the gas station and suggested we smoke a joint before he dropped me off.  He got his hands up my shirt so fast, I found myself clawing at the passenger side door like I was in a scary movie.  I ran across three parking lots and heard him laughing as he sped past.

That was the first time I'd ever been called a cunt.  It's not that big a deal, I guess. I haven't thought about that guy in years.  He's probably dead now.  Or really sick.

*******

Jason found out that he could get extra money every paycheck if he had a wife. Military cash benefits generally include the commissary and exchange, plus there's a stipend toward living expenses and health insurance.  It seemed too good to be true.  More money sounded like an awesome idea.  Besides, we loved each other.  So we got married.

*******

I bumped into Mr. Obert one afternoon.  He was the gentleman who owned and ran the park where we lived.  While he tinkered with a broken air conditioner on his back porch, he asked me if I had any interest in cleaning out one of the trailers that had recently been vacated.  He said he'd pay me twenty dollars.  How bad could it be?

Actually, it was pretty gross.  People can be pigs.  But I liked how much better things looked when I was finished scraping food off the stovetop and mopping out the bathroom.  I guess I did a pretty good job.  I scoured quite a few units after that.

Sometimes, folks took off in the middle of the night.  They left their clothes and shoes behind in the closet.  It made me feel awful to see deserted baby things.  I thought about all the interrupted lives.  It didn't look like they had any big plans in place.  Neither did I.  I came across some marijuana once and brought it home to Jason.

"I can't do that anymore," he said.  "I'll get in trouble."

He looked sad, and I felt even sadder.  I waited until he left for work and strolled across the street to the bait counter.  I bought some rolling papers and smoked that weed all by myself.  I spent hours, just petting the cat.

Another time, I found a plastic bag of blue pills stuffed in a drawer filled with abandoned pants and shirts.  They had little v's carved into the tops of them.  I kept my discovery a secret and began turning to them in the evenings while I made dinner.  I liked mixing them with beer and wine coolers.

Jason and I ate hot dogs and rice.  We sat on the edge of the bed watching MTV. Those little pills helped me relax into a relationship with my new husband. Everything was excellent until the bag was empty.

Shortly thereafter, I suspected I was pregnant.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Stumbling Through The Dark


I left a bunch of empty beer cans behind in an upstairs closet when I left home. Maybe nine or ten.  I slid them into the pockets of my father's police coats and several winter jackets.  Some of them I tucked neatly inside shoes that my dad rarely wore.  Half a dozen more I dropped down the side of a large air conditioner that was stored in the alcove connecting my room to my mother's.  Three spent bottles of wine and a quart of vodka were stashed back there as well.

I did this on purpose.  So she could find them someday and get upset.  I wanted her to know something about me.  Something dark and worrisome.  I wanted her to acknowledge a portion of my pain.  As if she didn't have enough of her own.

Years later after I'd been sober for a while, I was changing somebody's diaper.  I can't remember whose.  I think it was Desmond's.  He was lying on my mother's bedroom rug, banging the television remote control against the air conditioner.  It sat on the floor next to the window, doubling as a plant stand in the winter months.

"Stop that," I told my son.  He looked at me boldly and continued with the noise.

Bang, bang, bang!

I took the device from his sweaty little hand and tossed it just beyond his reach, where it landed between the appliance and the wall.  When I finished refastening his trousers and sent him on his way, I leaned over to retrieve the remote.  I thought about all those bottles and cans.  I asked my mother whatever happened to them.

"Oh, Mary honey,  I blamed your father."

"That doesn't make sense, Mom.  He never hid shit from you."

"I realize that," she said, her eyes filling with tears.  "I just didn't want to think you were inside, drinking all by yourself.  It would have ripped my heart right out of my chest.  Besides, yelling at him has always been so easy."

Sunday, March 29, 2015

More is Less

She never mentioned him being gone.  I eavesdropped on phone conversations she shared with her sister, Joan and pieced together her side of the story.  Her version of his problem.  All tough talk and badass bullshit.  If my mother was scared or worried, she didn't let on.

She had no contingency plans in place for the times when things went south. Instead, she was swept up in the maelstrom of each catastrophe, riding the waves of chaos back to the shore.  Until everything went crashing against the dock.  The poor thing just picked up all the rubble, closed the blinds and stayed in the house for a couple of days.

She dumped whatever heartache my father caused her deep into the bottom of her well of unmet needs, where it echoed and called out to whoever would listen. That's how I knew something was down there.  I could hear it, and the sorrow drove me crazy.

He was hardly ever home to begin with, so it wasn't even like he was missing.  Nor was it clear where he actually went.  All I knew was that he'd gotten into trouble with the cops.  That's about it.

He wrote her two letters the whole time he was away, penned carefully in large print on PBA* stationery.  A handful of sentences.  Not a word about the drinking, the party - what exactly happened.  He didn't say he loved or missed us.  Just what they had him doing.  Exercises.  They barbecued.  He went fishing with some of the other men.  He sent a photograph of himself, standing in front of a lake.  He had no shirt on, and he was smiling.  He looked heavier and healthier than usual.

I wanted more.  More than what was in those letters.  More than what I was getting.  But there was nothing extra to have.  I started eating as an activity.  A distraction.  I could put food inside my body and change the way I felt.  I liked feeling full and safe.

I gained weight steadily.  My school uniform got snug, and I knew it wasn't gonna fit when the summer ended and I started sixth grade.  But I didn't say anything.  I thought about going on a diet, but I didn't know how.  I began every morning instructing myself not to eat so much.  And by lunchtime, I was starving.

I snuck things from the kitchen that I thought wouldn't be missed.  A can of Chef Boyardee ravioli, four slices of bread, a jar of brown gravy.  I squirreled these items away and ate them when no one was looking.  Without utensils or a dish.  Like an animal.

Sometimes, I got caught.  My mom found candy wrappers in my pants pockets. Empty bags of cookies and chips wedged behind the radiator.  A soggy cardboard container of ice cream under some clothes in my bedroom.

I flushed aluminum foil down the toilet and denied it.  Even when I sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched Uncle Mike pry the Reynolds' Wrap ball from the pipes, I acted surprised. He asked me if I did it.

"Your mother doesn't need to know," he suggested.

But I couldn't tell the truth.  I was too ashamed.

"It wasn't me."  I started crying.

He kneeled in front of the commode and looked at me over the top of his glasses, pushing them back up onto the bridge of his nose.  He wiped his sopping wet hands onto his shirt.

"Clean your face," he said.  "Then run downstairs and get me a beer."

I wished Uncle Mike was my father.  He always came when my mother needed him.  He drank, but he didn't fall apart.  And at least, he could fix stuff.

*Patrolman's Benevolent Association

Monday, March 23, 2015

Penetrating Insight


There was always booze in our home, growing up.  And everybody drank.  Beer, mostly.  The fridge was consistently lined with cold ones.  Two whole shelves dedicated to the cause.  Plus, additional cases piled high in the basement.  We had plenty at all times and never ran out.

As a kid, I saw very few bottles of wine.  There were delicate glasses kept on a high shelf over the stove, champagne flutes and a handful of goblets, but Mom and Dad never used them.  I'm pretty sure they were wedding gifts.  I got the impression that wine was way too fancy for our crew.  A luxury reserved specifically for ladies who weren't serious about their drinking.  And pussies.

Run-of-the-mill hard stuff was available, as well.  The inexpensive, yet effective kind.  Liquor was stored in one of two octagonal end tables in the living room.  My parents didn't tap these additional resources regularly.  Mixed drinks were generally reserved for company.  House parties.  I remember the first time I took a swig of something and tonic by accident.  I thought it was 7-Up.  I could not believe grown-ups drank that shit on purpose.  All the maraschino cherries in the world weren't gonna change my mind.

Although my folks approached alcohol with comparable zeal, they had very different styles and goals as far as drinking was concerned.  My mother wanted to mix it up and share a few laughs.  She could handle herself fairly well and ventured into most occasions, hoping to have a good time.  Unfortunately, her inability to control how her husband behaved prevented her from enjoying all that much.  As soon as she had a few beers, she became obsessed with his condition.  And rightly so.  He was our ride wherever we went.  And if he was wasted, we were screwed.

Dad was shy and uncomfortable in social settings.  He didn't know how to relax or make conversation.  He wasn't a gossip.  He did seem determined, however, to poison himself at every baby christening and First Holy Communion party we got invited to.  He either fell, shit his pants or both.

She might have been terrified, but Mom still chose these moments to pick fights with my dad.  She called him names and attempted to embarrass him.  It didn't do any good.  Most of the time, he was too far gone to be either combative or cooperative.  Besides, he was never a fighter anyway.  Like I said, he was a faller.

I hated coming home from school and seeing a bottle of gin or rye appear unceremoniously on the kitchen counter.  It didn't happen often, but it never ended pretty.  Hard liquor brought bigger problems than the usual Budweiser kind. My folks had a hard time gauging the effects of spirits.  Dad, in particular.  He's always been a glass half empty kind of guy.  And once that glass was emptied, it needed refilling.  Until he couldn't see straight.

I was always relieved when the dust settled.  When the vodka and whiskey were returned to the living room cabinet, and Mom and Dad went back to drinking just beer.

I think I was eleven when my father got drunk at a cop party and threatened to shoot somebody in the face.  The NYPD sent him to some facility in Virginia to dry out.  Several months of rehabilitative treatment.  When he came home, he was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  Every day for ninety days, so he could get his gun back and return to work.  But the cure didn't take.  He was drunk again by New Year's.

In the seventh grade, my teacher explained to the class what alcoholism was, and I decided both my parents had it.  My ears became highly tuned to the sound of the bottle opener.  I started counting all the empty cans in the garbage.

Eight beers is way too many for one person, I decided to myself.  And I told my mother so.

"You're drunk," I said.  This accusation did not go over well.

"Who the hell do you think you are?" she slurred.

Who did I think I was?  Nobody, really.
And what could I do about their drinking?  Not a damn thing.

I don't recall what happened to change the way I felt about alcohol, to make me come around to appreciating its appeal.  Nor do I remember exactly when I realized that I could have a go at whatever was in those bottles in the liquor cabinet if I wanted.  I may have been about fourteen.  I rinsed out a Prell shampoo bottle and loaded it up with a combination of booze so foul, my little girlfriends and I had to hold our noses to swallow it down.

Some of my them balked when I suggested we do it again.  The buzz was short-lived, the shit tasted nasty and the headache that came on its heels lasted for days. They didn't see the point, whereas I only saw the possibilities.  I'm a glass half-full kind of girl.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring Contest!

Here are the simple requirements for winning this month's awesome Spring Contest:

1.  Underneath the Spring Contest section on the website, look for Networked Blogs (Like on Facebook).
2.  Click the BLUE Follow This Blog button.
3.  When the next screen pops up, click Follow to add yourself to the directory.

That's it!  The drawing will be held this Monday evening.  There are lots of sweet prizes and river otter socks.  Two chances to win.  Good luck to everyone!

And thanks, as always, for reading and supporting High Wire Girl.