“I have decided that photography is a sort of private sin of mine. As a virtue I find it really hard to sustain.”
The Arbus catalogue is full of quotes that I dutifully scribble in my own notebook after waking to rain on Monday morning. The laundry is spinning upstairs and I have a scant three hours to myself before hitting the dentist’s chair for one of my weekly three-hour sessions. Of course I am bitter and resentful about losing my Mondays to the student dentist, but the only target worthy of my bitterness is myself. One of the least sexy parts of being sober is the whole cleaning-up-the-wreckage-of-my-past project. And there’s no sense in complaining about my student dentist Adrian, who looks an awful lot like the guy in the commercial who has barbeque sauce smeared all over his face. There’s no point in complaining, because although Adrian is slow and has no dental hygienists to assist him, the dental school has a program that pays for all the work done on its clients with HIV. It’s a trade-off made almost bearable by my iPod.
I’m beginning to ask my father lots of questions, about their marriage and my early childhood. I’m not interested anymore in assigning blame for all the pain of those years. I just want to understand them. I want to understand the pressures of that time. I’m beginning to see each of them within myself; my father’s quiet, his need of order, his confusion when confronted with other people’s anger. My mother’s need for affection, her addictions, her desire to please.
My mother was raised Catholic, and hated it so much that she left the Church when she married my father, who was raised a Methodist. But she felt (of course) guilty for having done so, and lied to her parents. Each time they visited from Kansas we’d take them to the local Catholic church, pretending to be members.
I was the one who broke open the whole scam, when I was about nine. I made the mistake of mentioning Sunday school to my grandparents. How was I supposed to know that Catholics don’t do Sunday school? That was a fun day in the McAllister household.
I’m grateful to my mother for many things, including leaving the Church, as it saved me the likely prospect of more guilt than I’d know what to do with. I still inherited a fair amount of residual guilt from her. She was guilty for having abandoned the Church, for being a lesbian, for trying to be someone happier than the culture would allow at that point.
It wasn’t until 11:00 pm last Sunday that I remembered that it was February 1st, and that it had been two years since my mother died. I guess that’s progress, of a sort, though I didn’t feel particularly good about forgetting the anniversary. My subconscious brought her in for a guest appearance in my dreams that night. In the dream my stepsister and I were driving someplace and we stopped off at a 7-11 for a slushee, or Red Vines. And there was my mother, working the counter of the 7-11. I saw her as we were walking up to the front door and I broke down sobbing, wracked with guilt over the fact that my mother had to work at a convenience store. It was a little melodramatic, but my dreams aren’t exactly exercises in subtlety. In my dream she was still alive, but she was sick, which only made it worse. I was probably unemployed as well, making the contrast between her martyrdom and my failings as a dutiful son that much starker. When my mother saw us walk in, she retreated from the counter and asked a co-worker to help us, because she was ashamed we had seen her. She glanced at me quickly as she walked away, her smile an apology. In all of my dreams about her, I can never talk to her. She is always across the room. We can see each other, and she’ll smile at me, but I can never hear her voice.
On Tuesday I woke at 7. The world outside my window was shrouded in white fog, thicker than I had ever seen. I could barely make out the shape of the house next door. The trees were dripping onto the back deck. Drops of condensation fell onto the glass surface of the garden table. I was tired and reluctant, as always, to go into work. I wanted the fog to justify my desire to bury back into my bed. I wanted to call in sick. I wanted the fog to be so thick that the world would shut down. But I poured myself coffee and stumbled into the shower, because like my mother I never call in sick. And that’s why, as I drove down Roosevelt Way, around the curves that twist down the side of the hill, that I saw the fog did not shroud the entire city. As I descended it cleared away, and as I continued the cloud that lay over my house receded behind me.