My mother loved baths. Nearly every evening of her life she’d soak for an hour in the tub, a paperback mystery curled damply in her hand. When I think of those chaotic years following her separation from my father, I picture her in the tub of our yellow house at 1457 Idaho Avenue in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, calling for me.
I would be in my bedroom just down the hallway, reading my own mysteries. She had Patricia Cornwell, I had Encyclopedia Brown. “Yes?”
“Can you get me a glass of wine?”
“Okay,” I’d call back. My mother loved her wine as much as her baths, and the two together must have made the perfect combination, for nearly every evening she’d call to me. Sometimes she’d remember to bring a glass with her as the tub filled, calling me later for a refill.
The alcohol was kept in the highest cabinet of our kitchen. But at ten I was an agile little monkey, climbing easily onto the counter where I’d open the cabinet and reach inside for the red wine. There was a small collection of various liquor bottles kept there for entertaining, but after my father moved out we rarely had visitors. So they sat untouched in that high cabinet, red wine being my mother’s only poison. One bottle in particular fascinated me; the liquor was a brilliant shade of blue, blue as Windex, blue as a 7-11 slushee calling out to me, begging for a taste. But a long-ago sip of my mother’s wine had repulsed me, and it would be years before I’d drink on my own volition.
I’d pour her a healthy amount of wine, as if pouring myself a tall glass of Coke. I figured more was always better. Then I’d plug the bottle and place it back amongst the others in the dark of the high cabinet, and carefully carry the glass through the house to the bathroom. Most nights she’d have the shower curtain drawn all the way across the tub, and she’d reach through the slit between curtain and tile and I’d place the glass in her outstretched hand. Now and then, perhaps due to an earlier glass, she’d forget, and I would look away from her pale, plump body- this was years before she began running marathons- and the dark shock of her pubic hair floating like algae beneath the surface of the water. I was too young to understand appropriate parental relations -by then most boundaries had already been crossed- but I gathered from her startled expression and the quick tug of the shower curtain that I wasn’t supposed to see her like that. I certainly didn’t want to see her like that. I was a weird little kid, moody and secretive, but thankfully free of Oedipal fixations.
Those nightly wine errands could be considered a textbook definition of “enabling”, my mother unconsciously setting me up for a future of codependency and addiction. A short line drawn from her to me; cause and effect. But I remain stubbornly independent, or rather, stubbornly deluded about my uniqueness. Because so many memoirs have been written about addiction and illness, I resist writing my own. I want to be different. And I don’t want pity.
But my life contains those clichés: addiction and illness; redemption and loss. It’s what we did. When I was ten my parents split up, my father moved out, and within a year they both came out of the closet. My mother drank and cried a lot, my father was cold and distant. I may not have known the definition of dysfunction, but I knew my family was different, a silent suburban catastrophe.
One late summer afternoon my mother was taking her bath, relaxing after a particularly stressful trip. We had just returned from her mother’s funeral in Kansas. Her mother, true to family form, had drunk herself to death.
I was outside, swinging from the branches of the large oak tree in the backyard. I glanced over the top of our fence and saw Grover, my beloved fat cat, lying in the alley across the street. This wasn’t unusual; Grover often enjoyed soaking up the sun on the asphalt, blissfully unconcerned about the traffic in our sleepy neighborhood.
However, there was a car idling just a few feet away from him, and I ran across the street to get him out of the way. But then I saw the pool of blood and Grover lying there, his sides rising and falling in short breaths.
I must have screamed, running from the stupidly confused look of the elderly couple in the front seat of the car, the man peering at me over the steering wheel. I ran full-tilt back into the house, screaming and crying for my mother, bursting into the bathroom and nearly scaring her to death.
“What?” she yelled, “What is it?”
“Grover’s been hit by a car!”
And then a low, mournful wail came from her, chilling me with its despair. “No!” she moaned, “No!” Her fear and grief frightened me; I wanted her to snap out of it; I wanted her to take charge.
She pulled herself out of the tub and dressed quickly, but the odds were against us. Her car was in the shop, and we had to call my father for a ride. My mother found a small section of plywood in the garage, and we pulled this under Grover and lifted him off the street. By now the killers had left. I babbled to him as the minutes stretched. My father pulled up in his little gold Volkswagen, and the three of us drove to the emergency vet at the University of Minnesota, and though I picture Grover lying on the thin wooden board in my lap, I know that my mother held Grover in the front seat, trying to spare me the sight of his glassy eyes and his dwindling, shallow breath.
An impressive number of vets in white coats rushed into action upon our arrival. But Grover was already dead. A solemn-faced woman came out to the waiting room, kneeling before us to deliver the news. We left him there, donating his body “to science.” We drove home, and I sat in the backseat again, pinned there like a butterfly by a dark despair that grew as the minutes passed. Of our many failed attempts at pet ownership (cats in our care ran away, got sick, or were killed by neighborhood dogs) Grover was by far my favorite, and his sudden absence hurt far worse than my grandmother’s death. I still have a picture of Grover: I am sitting in our black vinyl recliner wearing that ugly brown velour shirt with the zippered collar, squeezing him tight, the camera’s flash catching both his wildly dilated pupils and my smile full of braces.
My parents sat in the front seat in silence, two people who didn’t love each other anymore, and I felt as though it would always be this way; each of us an island floating just beyond each other’s reach. We would never be like other families. We would never be able to do anything right, this splintered family of homosexuality, cheap clothes, unsigned permission slips. Our cars would break down and our pets would always die. We would be naked when we should be clothed.
I knew my father would drop us off and probably sigh with relief as we slipped into the house. He didn’t care for animals. My mother would make frozen dinners again and I’d stand with her in the kitchen, watching with mute dread the fruit flies hovering over the garbage can. And she’d disappear with her red wine, and later I’d hear her crying late into the night, alone in her bedroom upstairs. And in my own room I’d turn to the dependable company of Judy Blume and Casey Casum, wanting to go to her but not knowing what to say.
We pulled into our driveway and I grabbed a tissue from the box lying beside me on the back seat. I crumpled the tissue into a ball, climbed out of the car, and walked across the street to the alley where Grover had been killed. I pressed the tissue into the small pool of blood until its edges bloomed red. I crossed back to our yard, past my parents who stood there watching me. “Michael?” my mother said. They followed me to the corner of our yard where we had recently planted a young seedling. Even the poor tree was barely scraping by, its barren branches drooping towards the ground below. I knelt down and scooped a handful of loose soil aside, and then buried the tissue.
Even at twelve I was aware of my melodrama, but I felt their eyes on me, and I felt their concern, and because it was rare I performed, seeking more concern. I knelt there for a moment, basking in their worried attention, then retreated to the house, leaving them there, forcing them to look at each other and talk.