Through the slatted blinds I could feel the persistent slivers of sun, reminding me that I hadn’t croaked after all. On a scale of one to ten, I’d surely racked up a “fourteen” in my efforts to achieve Nirvana. But, as always, in my quest for the ultimate high, I’d gone too far, earning points instead for “most idiotic” or, at the very least, “self-destructive ass of the century”.
Groaning at the nagging reminders of the night before, I thanked the gods for the blessed miracle of the blackout, thus relegating some of my most humiliating moments to that trash bin in my memory banks, hopefully never again to be retrieved.
When I could no longer avoid the inevitable, I slowly tested my sea legs. First one, then the other, I found myself erect, after a fashion, and tottered disjointedly across the darkened space. In my efforts to stay upright, I stumbled and almost tripped several times. My floor seemed to have turned into some kind of obstacle course, littered with all kinds of stuff.
Someday I’m going to organize things!
Coffee, that’s what I need! Having finally navigated the room, I stood at the sink, piled high with filthy dishes; in my clumsy efforts to fill the coffeepot, I dislodged the top one, sending the whole stack tumbling. And from the depths of the detritus, a large black roach scurried for cover, eliciting a shriek from someone. Oh, that someone is I!
Grateful for small favors, I calculated that today was not a workday. Not that it necessarily made a difference. There’d been many a day when I’d scrambled into my serious working girl attire, complete with makeup, and put on an Oscar-winning performance as a sober, upstanding individual. Yeah, I’m sure they all bought it, too!
Jarring my last nerve the telephone’s ring ripped through the thundering silence, warning of unpleasant realities. But I’d been properly trained never to ignore a ringing phone. After all, Mr. Right could be on the other end of the line. Or at least, someone announcing that I’d won a sweepstakes or inherited a large estate from some unknown relative. Eternal Optimist, I dubbed myself, as I plumbed the layers of stuff everywhere in search of the cordless phone. At last! I found it buried under a stack on the daybed. Sighing in relief, I croaked out a plausible imitation of a greeting.
“Hello, Raven,” my mother’s voice inserted itself through my fantasies of salvation, and instead of finding myself in the winner’s circle, I seemed to be crumbling into that recalcitrant teenager, grounded for staying out past curfew or coming home loaded. How did she do that? My mother always could intuit whenever I had sunk to my lowest point, reaching out at that very moment to topple my crumbling façade. And she did all this without one cruel word or sometimes without even saying anything at all. Marianne Lane, domestic queen and career woman of substance, gave new meaning to the phrase “killing with kindness”.
“Hi, Mother,” I choked out a reply, scrambling for equilibrium. I steeled myself against whatever she might dish out, shoving aside the layers of clothes, books, wine bottles and overflowing ashtrays that littered my daybed, finally discovering a small corner into which I could curl up. Ready for anything!
“I thought you might like to know that Royce is coming back from Prague. He’ll be home tomorrow.” Her voice literally bursting with pride and joy, she chattered away, gifting me with all the details of my brother’s astounding success as a journalist whose insightful articles had earned him several writing awards. He’d been in Europe for several years now, moving from England, to Ireland, and now, for the past two years, he’d been in the Czech Republic.
Fond as I was of Royce, I always felt insignificant next to him. I wonder why, I thought bitterly, matching my pitiful achievements against his and coming up short. At times like these, as if to bolster my sagging ego, I trotted out every slight, every injustice, parading them in my mind, achieving a pathetic defense against my failures. If only Daddy, who’d been my hero in childhood, hadn’t disappeared! If Mother hadn’t been so focused on her own career, she might have noticed me more and my self-esteem wouldn’t be in the toilet! If only!
Even at my worst, I didn’t totally buy this garbage. But it eased the pain somehow.
When I hung up, I knew that I couldn’t avoid Royce’s homecoming feast. And I didn’t really want to. I had fond memories of our camaraderie, back when we’d been in the trenches of our embattled childhood together. Both of us scrambling for a foothold in the household, vying for position, we’d still known that the other was there, when the worst happened. As it invariably did.
Marianne Lane, for all her external poise and achievement, had her own demons. And she’d brought them home to us. After Daddy left all those years ago, in Royce’s eighth year and my third, Mother had been devastated. In the beginning she’d missed work, calling in sick only to hide herself under the covers all day. Then doing a 180, she’d turned into this hopeless workaholic by day and party girl by night. Which left, you guessed it, not much time for the munchkins!
Her first live-in boyfriend was Jim, who ignored us.
Then there was Jared, followed by Timothy. My all-time favorite, of course, was Justin. Justin of the hot temper followed by chilling, punishing silences. Treading delicately through this armed camp, Royce and I clung to each other, hiding out in one room or the other while the battles escalated. In the end, when Justin started hitting our mother, we knew it was almost over. One thing we knew about Mother for sure. She had a strong sense of her own worth and nobody treated her like that. Soon he was out the door.
For a long time then she didn’t bring anybody home, and our shell of a homelife began to form a predictable pattern. Mother, up early, rushing to get us off to school and herself to work; home again in the evenings, with homework monitoring and strict guidelines for TV viewing.
Sometimes we nostalgically conjured up that time when she’d barely noticed us. This hovering mother was almost too much! Luckily, she couldn’t sustain the superwoman persona indefinitely.
As my headache receded, I began trying to restore order to my surface life. Rule Number One, learned at the feet of Marianne Lane: When all else fails, try for a good presentation.
Two hours later I sank down into the now tidy room, exhausted. Looking around, taking stock, I pumped myself up with self-congratulations: Martha Stewart would be proud.
Against the far wall stood my daybed, now pristinely covered with a patchwork quilt and layers of colorful pillows. In the wicker trunk/coffee table, I had stashed all the odds and ends, following Rule Number Two: What you can’t organize, hide behind closed doors or in attractive storage bins.
Two slipcovered chairs flanked the daybed and trunk, offering a sitting-room appearance to the space. And at the opposite end of the room, where I now sat sipping my reward -- a cup of coffee laced with Kahlua -- My painted pine table now held a floral bouquet, picked from the neighbors’ garden. As I admired the mix of pansies and snapdragons, my mind felt calm and in control. I can do this!
I drove south from my San Francisco home to the Central Valley town where I’d been raised.
Looking the part I was meant to play, I had dressed in matching slacks and shirt, my curly black tresses tamed into a French twist. I struggled to find that inner core deep inside, hoping that it would carry me through. That part so often stuffed down or buried under substances, that part that held a hidden strength hopefully retained in spite of my self-abuse. I dusted it off and donned it like a bulletproof vest.
It took less than two hours to get there, but I found my car slowing down, almost all on its own, as if it had some kind of control. In spite of my pep talks to myself en route, I felt the mantle of fear descending as I pulled into the circled driveway on the tree-lined street and stared at the unchanged face of my childhood home. A bungalow with a welcoming front porch, it looked like something out of a magazine. And true to form, Mother appeared, glamorously coiffed and wearing beige linen trousers with an off-white camisole; tied around her shoulders, a matching beige sweater completed the ensemble.
And behind her, Royce, with a long reddish ponytail, waved like some hometown hero.
I need a drink! I thought, clutching my throat as if I could jar loose the lump forming there. I felt so many emotions I couldn’t name, beginning with utter joy to see my brother, vying with other, less noble feelings. Like envy, or resentment, or even self-pity.
Mother had invited some of her friends and colleagues whose faces seemed vaguely familiar. They all patted me on the shoulder, as if they’d been brought up to speed on my less-than stellar life so far, murmuring and clucking their little morsels of encouragement and cheer.
But in whispers, as if to protect my privacy.
Uniformed waiters circled the room bearing trays of drinks and tasty hors d’oeuvres. I skipped the tidbits in favor of the vodka, gulping the first drink down all at once while reaching for another. Nearby, Royce wasn’t missing any of this, but he grinned in conspiratorial fashion, reminding me of my mostly positive feelings about him.
But then he loped over, tipping his glass, and cut to the chase. “Tell me, sister dear. When are you going to stop beating yourself up for every wrong turn?”
Stung by his comments, I bristled. “I guess I’ll do that about the same time that Mother quits reminding me of everything I could have done better!”
“Touché! But then again, Raven, you make it so easy for everyone to dump on you, with your self-deprecatory comments and your flagrant displays. Like the time you showed up with a bare midriff and your navel piercing, right next to that butterfly tattoo!” He laughed, even as he aptly described that period in my life. “Don’t you ever think about why you give everyone so much ammunition? Could you be less obvious in your self-flagellation?” Aiming for lightheartedness, he still got in his zingers.
I shrugged and nodded, wondering how I would now extricate myself from the hot seat. When in doubt, have another drink, I told myself, as I reached for one, downing it quickly.
Drinking as much as I’d been doing for years now did have a downside. I never quite got where I wanted to go. That buzzing, glowing feeling that had accompanied drinking in the early years of my partnership with substances had faded by now, replaced by the compulsive need to achieve that faintly recalled euphoria. But it eluded me time after time. Which never stopped me from trying to capture it! Ah, the eternal and vigilant quest!
Once, after a particularly troubling binge, I’d attended a few AA meetings. There I heard familiar stories of humiliation, failure, and endless degradation. But all the epistles had one common thread. Like a competition, each tale vied for preeminence in the Career Drinker’s Hall of Fame. Didn’t they bring in special speakers once a month at that one club, where spots at the podium had been earned for Deepest Bottom or Most Degradation? In fact, before speaking at certain theme meetings, each person had to first “qualify himself”. Which meant describing in detail the drinking events that had earned that person his or her title, announced at the beginning of each spiel: “I’m so and so, and I’m an alcoholic/addict”.
In the end I’d dropped out, disgusted with the self-congratulatory style around the tables.
But that might have just been my way of sinking further into “denial”. That’s what they all would have said, anyway. In fact, with those folks, you couldn’t win! If you didn’t think you had a problem, you were in denial. That penchant of theirs toward automatic inclusion in their ranks, by virtue of their labels, drove me wild…Along with the quaint sayings they were so fond of like: One day at a time, First things first, Keep it simple, stupid, and best of all, Let go and let God. Some of the longtime members even flashed these sayings, like badges, in the form of bumper stickers.
Long after my defunct AA experience had been relegated to the distant past, I would notice a car ahead of me on the street emblazoned with one of those sayings; my heart would thud, just a little. Then my rationalizations would take over and I would be home free. Again.
Someone once said to me -- sitting at a bar, I think -- that AA had ruined his drinking.
Maybe that’s what was happening to me, I thought on this startlingly sunny day when Royce came home. I certainly never felt quite as celebratory as I once had. Even when I didn’t drink so excessively that I blacked out, or suffered real physical pain the next day, I didn’t seem to be having any fun any more. But I kept plugging along, searching for that elusive something.
When I left my childhood home that day, Royce and I hugged tightly. There was an extra poignancy in the moment that I would later look back on with a pang of sorrow.
Shrugging off the negativity I always felt after a family reunion, I drove carefully, realizing suddenly that, if pulled over, I’d surely have a very high blood alcohol level. Even after all those cups of coffee Mother had foisted on me toward the end!
I managed to successfully negotiate the freeway systems, breathing a sigh of relief when I finally reached my familiar street and pulled into a curbside parking space. For a moment, I stared at the shabby house, seeing what others might. But then, true to myself, I spun my own edited version of reality, taking notice of the unique architectural details on the front of the house and ignoring the peeling paint. My apartment on the third floor had its own private entrance by way of an outside staircase, and I reminded myself of my good fortune in having this place at all. For years now, I’d been working odd jobs, never really finding my niche. My latest position as an eligibility worker for the local welfare agency reminded me of everything I hadn’t achieved in life. But on the plus side, the job brought with it health benefits and annual leave. And it presented daily reminders, compliments of the clientele, of how much farther down I could go.
At thirty I’d run the gamut of careers, from food services to human services. Just one year short of my degree I’d opted to drop out, finding myself in competition with all the other college dropouts for the least desirable jobs available. I knew I could go back to school, but the prospect of giving up my nighttime partying in favor of educational pursuits…Well, you can see the dilemma!
Of course, Royce had brilliantly completed both his bachelor and master’s degrees. With a BA in journalism and an MA in fine arts, he could satisfy all of Mother’s vicarious needs. She’d often told us how she’d longed to be a writer, settling instead for a career in social work for its “job security”. This last she always spoke with meaningful glances at the two of us, reminding us of all the sacrifices she’d made on our behalf. And we always felt guilty about it, especially me. I knew I had become her biggest disappointment ever.
I cringed when I thought about my failed relationships, including the brief marriage at twenty.
There was so much Mother didn’t know, for which I felt eternally grateful. Like the two trips to the abortion clinic, just two short years apart, and the bouts of depression that still lingered. And, of course, there was the drinking…But knowing Mother, she had shrouded herself with the cloak of denial, just as I had….
I was determined to work all five days that week, restricting my partying.
I kept my eye on the calendar. My reward would come on the weekend when I could party without guilt.
So when the phone rang on Wednesday, three very long days into that week, I figured it would be one of my cronies, attempting to entice me out to the neighborhood club.
Mother’s voice on the other end of the line startled me.
“Raven, dear,” she spoke in hollow tones; for a moment, I almost didn’t recognize her voice. A strange, unfamiliar quality clung to the words. “I’m afraid I have bad news….” And then she began sobbing, immediately eliciting all the prickling feelings of fear and dread.
“What happened?” I was afraid to ask, but took the leap anyway.
“It’s Royce,” she tried again. “He’s been in an accident….”
“Is he all right? Tell me, Mother, please!”
“No, he isn’t…It was a car accident. He was driving to Oregon to visit some old friends…his car went off a cliff and burst into flames…they found his charred remains….”
Her sobs now took over while mine joined in the chorus.
Finally she told me about the arrangements and I listened, writing down details on my notepad. My mind seemed to go on automatic pilot, as I heard myself murmuring responses at appropriate intervals. “Um-hum, yes, sure, Mom. I’ll be there.”
Afterwards, I felt myself gliding through the room, removing clothing, replacing clothing, and as if in a trance, I tripped down the stairs to my car. And then drove to the bar on the corner.
I got through the next few days by staying high. My love relationship with substances stood me in good stead as I again drove south to attend the funeral of my only sibling, with whom I’d shared a complicated relationship. Whenever the guilt threatened to overtake me, I drank or snorted or smoked something.
I must have had a guardian angel on my shoulder since I didn’t once get pulled over, or even worse, kill myself or anyone else in the process. I’m not quite sure how I managed that.
Standing before the closed casket, topped by the photograph of Royce grinning jauntily out at us, I sobbed. My tears continued, on and off, for days.
Returning home, I kept up my end by replenishing my supplies: the necessary kind, like booze, pot, cocaine….
Still on bereavement leave from work, I took this opportunity to stay submerged in my self-pity, with the aid of these very vital, aforementioned ingredients.
And then the inevitable happened. I got pulled over one night and charged with a DUI.
Mother bailed me out, of course, and sat next to me during the court hearings. I imagined, though, how she was wishing, right about now, that I had died instead of Royce. Surely the gods had snatched up the wrong kid! But, to her credit, she seemed completely supportive, helping me get into the required inpatient treatment program.
I listened through a wall of defenses as the others droned on, sharing the familiar stories I’d once upon a time heard at those AA meetings. I stayed very still, praying silently that I would fade into the woodwork somehow. But eventually, as I’d known I would be, I was in the spotlight, in the center of the winner’s circle, having earned my God-given right to be here in this elite group.
I sat there facing them all as they encircled me and finally, summoning up my last vestiges of strength and courage, I met the hard, challenging eyes pinned upon me. They waited for the correct response.
And I surrendered. “Hi, my name’s Raven, and I’m an alcoholic/addict.”