Does everyone deserve a second chance?
| She just showed up on my doorstep late one night. No letter, no telephone call, no advance warning, rhyme, or reason. She just appeared, as if someone had conjured her up on my front porch under the yellow light bulb that had came with the house when I rented it. It cast off the ugliest corona of light I had ever seen; so much so that I refused to be outside if it was on. I would either sit outside on the crumbling brick steps in the dark, with my beer and cigarette and maybe a candle or two, or I'd stay inside and fall asleep on the couch, with the blue glare of the television as a night-light. Either way, I was alone. That was the way that I wanted it.
I must not have masked my expression all that well when I opened the door and saw her there, because the first words out of her mouth were, "What's the matter? You look like you've seen a ghost." There was a pause, then she laughed; she must have realized the irony of her words. Ha ha, it was so funny. I failed to see the humor, however, in a twenty-two year old opening her door to find her junkie mother standing there with a suitcase. The self-same mother that had basically abandoned me and my brother Paul when I was fifteen and he was eleven. She had left us for the needle, the mirror, the lighter—anything illegal she had to have. I had always imagined her attitude then as being, Kids? What kids? I have kids? Well, let me get just a little more high. It'll clear my head and then maybe I'll be able to think about what I'm going to do about them.
I suppose I could have just closed the door in her face. I certainly didn't have to let her in. I should have just shut and locked the door; locked her out of my life just as she had pushed me and Paul out of hers so long ago. But the woman that stood before me that night wasn't the same mother that I had grown up with; even at a quick glance I could see that. The dark circles around her eyes were gone, she had gone back up to a healthy weight instead of being bone skinny as she was the last time I saw her, and her eyes…maybe they were the thing that really sold me. They weren't dull and lifeless as they had been every time I had looked into them for as long as I could remember, but they held a sort of sparkling brightness, a vitality that had never been there before. They weren’t dead as they had been for the first fifteen years of my life, but they radiated a life force that was so different…so strong…
At first I thought that I had made a mistake; that this wasn’t my mother at all, but my roommate Jamie. After all, it was late, and I had fallen asleep on my American Lit book while studying for my upcoming midterm. But no. Jamie had gone back to Colorado to take care of her father, who was terminally ill. She wasn’t coming back. This woman was my mother, yet at the same time she was someone extremely different. I knew her all too well, but at the same time she was a random stranger I could have met on the street. I found that I couldn't leave her out there, especially not bathed in that ugly yellow light that I despised so much.
Before I could stop myself, I had swung open the screen door with the foot-sized hole in the bottom of it, also something that had come with the house that I hadn’t gotten around to fixing yet.
"Come in, mom."
I took her suitcase and put it in my bedroom, not entirely sure what else to do with it. As I laid it on the bed, I found myself wondering what was in it. Instinctively, my hands moved to the locks, and I stopped myself just in time. Wait. You don’t have to do this anymore. She's not the same, I reminded myself. You don't have to run behind her anymore. She's the adult now. I ran my hands over the faded, frayed canvas outer shell, finding comfort in smoothing out the wrinkles.
I moved back into the living room, afraid to leave her alone for too long, and found her looking at the few wall hangings that I had. She pointed at one that looked as if a five-year-old had scribbled on it with various colors of crayons. "This one's especially nice. Yard sale?"
"Flea market, actually," I replied, and asked her if she wanted anything to drink.
She shook her head no, but followed me into the kitchen as I put some water on for tea. I needed something to do with my hands, and for some reason, I found I couldn’t look at her directly.
We stood there, two strangers awash in an uncomfortable silence right in the middle of my kitchen. She looked at her fingers, which were tapping out some kind of rhythm—maybe a song that I didn’t recognize—on the Formica countertop. I looked at the floor, an endless maze of old, faded green and white checkerboard. I saw a bug of some kind crawling across the floor. I stepped on it, feeling the sharp crunch that signified its quick, violent demise through my slippers. Still neither one of us spoke. After what seemed like an eternity, she moved to the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. With her foot, she pushed the chair directly opposite her out, offering me not only a place to sit, but also a chance to talk openly.
I took the seat but not the invitation of a conversation, and studied a hangnail that had been giving me grief for a few days. She shook a cigarette out of her nearly empty pack—she and I both smoked the same brand, I noticed—and went to light it.
"You can't smoke in here. The landlady gets ticked if you do. Here…" I moved an empty chair to the window and opened it. "Just sit close to the window. I do it all the time."
I took my designated seat again as my mother moved to the window to smoke. Watching her take drags and blow the smoke out through the screen; seeing the way that she held her cigarette—lightly between her nicotine-stained first and middle fingers, with her thumb resting on the filter—seeing how the blue-tinged smoke rose, circled just above her head, then floated slowly and deliberately out the open window, fading into the chilly California night—becoming part of that night—a million questions formed in my mind. Questions that I didn't think could ever be voiced. Perhaps, even, questions that had no answers.
She snubbed out her cigarette on the peeling windowsill, closed the window, and returned to her seat opposite me at the table. She slid her cigarettes back into the pocket of her jacket, folded her hands together on the table, and leaned forward, as if she was about to tell me a secret. But she never said anything. I could feel us slipping into another of those uncomfortable silences. I headed it off with a cough and a single question, directed to my slippers tapping lightly on the tile floor.
"So, are you clean now, or what?"
She reached over, took my hand, and gave it a squeeze. The teakettle started to shriek, and I jumped.
I was lying on the sofa, reading a book as I was snuggled under the comforter while on the television David Letterman told jokes that I didn't find funny in the least. Maybe it was just the years of living in California, but I preferred Jay Leno. But still, he was a better companion than no one, so I let him drone on, the volume low, so I only occasionally caught the laughter of the studio audience. The two beers that I had instead of the tea that no one ended up drinking were beginning to catch up with me; already I could feel my temples throbbing. I never was a really heavy drinker. I heard movement in my bedroom, the door clicked open, and soon my mother emerged, heading to the kitchen.
"Where you going?" I didn't look up from my book.
She started. "Oh! I wanted to get a glass of water…I thought you were asleep."
I dog-eared the page that I was on, keeping my place, and tossed it down by my feet. "Nah. I won't drop off for a few more minutes." I flung back the comforter and swung my feet out so I could get up. "I'll show you where the glasses are."
She opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it, and followed me.
I opened the cabinet next to the refrigerator that must have been manufactured the year I was born and took down two glasses: one boasting a print of the Grand Canyon (to which I had never been, and frankly didn’t care to go) and the other with a faded Mickey Mouse on the side that a friend had gotten me from Disneyland. I handed mom the Mickey glass. "Sorry they don't match. College girl's budget, you know."
She didn’t. My mom had gotten pregnant almost immediately after graduating high school. “Some graduation present,” she'd rant when she was smacked up, “I couldn't have any fun then because of you.” As if it had been my fault I had been conceived. Unfortunately, I had no say in that. If I had, if I would have had even an inkling of what my life was going to be like, I would have opted not to be born.
She took the glass and turned on the tap. As she filled her glass, she looked at my feet, opened her mouth, closed it, then changed her mind and opened it again. "They're pink."
"What?" I had opened the fridge to pull out another beer, then decided against it. I had a class tomorrow morning, and it was going to be hard enough to concentrate with the hangover I was already beginning to feel.
"Your socks. They're pink." She raised the glass. "You hate pink."
I looked down at my feet, half expecting to see that I had grown another toe. But all I saw were plain, ordinary, everyday feet, clad in pink socks. I found myself marveling that my mother had actually retained such a minute detail about myself after all these years.
"Yeah, well, like I said. No money, and these were cheap." What I didn't mention was how I had put them on over the holey white ones that I had been wearing that day along with a pair of jeans over leotards, a long sleeve shirt and jacket over a tank top, and finally pulled my hair down from the ponytail it had been in and slipped a pair of sunglasses on. I had looked like a completely different patron when I had walked out of that Wal-Mart.
"You always swore that you would never wear pink. Not ever." She shook her head and refilled her glass. "I suppose time's changed everything." She gave my arm a squeeze and retreated back to my room. "Night, Katie."
"Night, mom," I mumbled as I filled my glass. I went back to my nest in the sofa, unable to concentrate anymore on the book that I was reading. Apparently time had changed everything, and it appeared that my mom was back—and full of surprises.
David Letterman droned on as I fell asleep.
"Katie?" Paul sounded groggy. "Katie, what are you doing?"
"Go back to sleep," I hissed at him. "Don't worry about what I'm doing." I grabbed the paraphernalia that was all over the kitchen table. Spoons, syringes, straight razors, mirrors, needles—I grabbed it all, being careful not to cut or puncture my hands. I sure didn’t want to end up like my mother, passed out from the effects of cocaine.
"I'm helping mom," I told him. "Please, go back to sleep--don't wake her up." I kept a close eye on her, passed out, slumped in a corner. I was ten, I knew that she wouldn't wake up for hours, but I wanted Paul to be out of the way. I didn't want him to be able to say that he saw anything when my mother roused and saw her stash obliterated. But he was a curious six-year-old, and he wanted to help, so I gave him a plastic bag. "Here, hold this open for me."
As I swept the white powder that had been lined up on the table into the bag, I had a feeling of hopelessness. This wouldn’t stop her. She'd just get mad, maybe smack us around a little bit, then as she was coming down, she might cry for an hour or so, say that she was so sorry, and she loved us so much, and she was going to stop. But then she'd just get up and go get more. God only knew how she got it, because according to her, we had no money. Because of that Paul and I frequently walked out of grocery stores with cans of soup and vegetables stuffed into our bookbags and hidden under our jackets after school.
After the powder came the various things that had been collected on the table. I had a needle in my hand, having just dropped one syringe in the bag and preparing to dispose of the other, when Paul gave a little squeal. I started, and the needle pricked my finger. As the drop of blood appeared, Paul began to whimper.
"No, Katie! Now you're going to be like mommy! Don't be like mommy, Katie…" he cried over and over. He dropped the bag and wrapped his arms around my waist. I just watched the blood slowly roll down my finger, closer to my palm, and found myself wondering who had used that needle last, and what kind of venomous concoction it had contained.
I woke up with a gasp. The sunlight streaming in through the bare windows did nothing to warm the icy fear that had taken me over, as it always did when my past manifested itself in my dreams. I was shaking as I looked at my finger, the one that had been pricked so long ago. It was whole and complete; no tiny hole pierced the skin, no minute drop of blood pooled and formed. I began to take deeper breaths to calm myself down a little more. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples, where the bad decision of last night's drinking would haunt me for the rest of the day. I got up and padded to the kitchen.
The coffee had already been brewed. There were two cups missing from the pot, and a dirty coffee mug rested in the sink. A clean one was out on the counter, with a note beside it:
I went out for a morning run. I'll fix breakfast when I get back. Love, Mom.
So it was real. It had really happened. I had almost shaken it off as I had the nightmare of last night. I took a deep breath, let it out in a sort of shuddery laugh, and took the clean cup from where it sat on the counter.
I poured myself a cup of coffee—I had taken to drinking it black lately—and pulled a frying pan out from under the stove. Taking the carton of eggs, a red and a green pepper, half of an onion, and some cheese from the fridge, I set to making two Spanish omelets. The second one had just been put in the pan when I heard the front door open and close.
Mom walked into the kitchen, pulling the headphones from a Walkman from her ears. "What's all this? I told you I'd cook."
"I know," I said from behind my third cup of coffee, which was doing nothing to help my headache. "I just felt like cooking something. It's not every day that your mother shows up at your doorstep ready to start over, you know."
"Yeah," she agreed, "I know." She took the plate that I offered her and moved to the table. I slid the concoction that looked nothing like an omelet, but more like a mountain of yellow egg speckled with red and green slivers onto a plate and joined her. As I sat down, she got up and rinsed out her coffee cup in the sink and poured herself another cup. As she sat back down, I jumped up. I had forgotten forks. I pulled open the drawer and found the last two remaining clean forks, then brought them back to the table. I sat down. She stood up.
"Napkins," she said to me with a grin.
I had caught on to this game. I gulped the rest of my coffee—not an easy task as it was still slightly hot—trying to drain my cup as she moved to the microwave and took two napkins from the basket on top. As soon as her butt hit the seat, I jumped up and turned my coffee cup upside down.
"Refill." I grinned.
She playfully narrowed her eyes at me.
I filled my cup and sat down again. As a reflex, she stood up and took a few steps from the table. She stopped in the middle of the kitchen. Then she turned around and gave me a sheepish look.
"You win," she said. "I can't think of another reason to get up."
I laughed, and she sat down and picked up her fork.
It felt so odd. Twenty-four hours ago, I had sat in this very same kitchen, alone except for the local morning news blaring from the living room and my history book, eating stale cereal. This morning, I was sitting with my mother, laughing and carrying on. What a difference a day makes.
We finished breakfast, and she waved her hand at me when I tried to collect the dishes. "I'll put the dishes away, Katie. You go shower and get dressed. You've got classes today."
She actually even sounded like a mother now. As a reflex I got up and moved to the doorway, but instead of going to the bathroom, I stopped and studied her as she ran water into the sink and opened a few lower cabinets, looking for the dishwashing liquid that I wasn’t sure I had. Was this really the same woman who I had last seen seven years ago? The same woman who couldn't even get out of bed without smoking or shooting up? The same woman who had cared nothing of her quality of life, and cared even less about her two children? The same woman who had moved us from place to place, to avoid contact with our father, who had threatened to have her declared unfit? I remember her hugging us tightly those nights we were awakened and told to hurry, that they were so close. At first I thought that they were just hallucinations, but soon I began to understand. We were all she had, and if she lost us…I didn’t know what she would do or what she was capable of.
Perhaps that’s what kept me there for so long—feeling that if I took Paul and left, something awful would happen to her—maybe she’d do something to herself—and I would have to live with that for the rest of my life. She would wrap her bone-skinny arms covered with tracks around us and tell us that we were her world, that she loved us more than anything, even the smack, and how she'd die if we ever left her.
I shook off the memory. Those days were over. My mother was in recovery. A full turn-around.
I stayed in the shower until it was no longer scalding hot water that sprayed my back, but that lukewarm temperature that gives you a five-second warning that cold water was moving up the pipes. I wrapped my robe around me and went into my bedroom to dress. I pulled on the first pair of jeans I saw, regardless of whether or not they were clean, threw my gray tank top over my head, and pulled my dark blue jacket over that. I didn't really need the jacket, it wasn't that chilly, but I seemed to be the only person in California that wasn't tanned. I was hopelessly pale, and I felt ashamed to put that fact out in the open for all to gawk at. I pulled my still wet hair back into a ponytail and threw on the least little bit of make-up that I could get away with. I grabbed my loaded bag from the corner and pulled open the door.
I found mom sitting at the kitchen table, looking over the morning paper. She ran her pointer finger slowly down the article, line by line, seeming to carefully contemplate every sentence. She looked so at peace, but at the same time so focused. I hated to break her reverie, but I cleared my throat.
She looked up. “Yes, sweetie? Are you leaving now?”
“Yeah, I’m heading out, mom. You can hang out here if you want, or you can do…whatever.” It occurred to me that there was a lot that I didn’t know about my ‘new mother.’
"All right. I do need to run in to town quickly today.” She paused, as if she were making a mental note, then picked up her coffee cup. “When are you coming home?" She sounded eager.
"I don't know. I'm going to the library and the gym after, so maybe about five or five-thirty."
"Do you think maybe you'll be up for a little fun tonight? It is Friday night," she said matter-of-factly, “and I’ll bet that all you do on Friday nights is sit in this kitchen with some textbook and listen to whatever happens to be on in the other room.” She gestured to the TV with her thumb. “So come on. What do you say?”
"I don’t know. What kind of fun?" I asked. I was horrified to realize that there was a tone of suspicion in my voice.
She didn’t catch it. "We'll go out, have some dinner, then we'll do a little night life. You know, fun," she said.
"All right, all right. Oh, before I forget, here's my cell phone number." I scribbled in the margin of the obituaries. "Call if you need anything."
"All right, sweetheart. Have a good day. I love you." She kissed me on the cheek and handed me the keys to my car, and I started down the hallway.
I poked my head around the corner, keeping the screen door propped open with the toe of my boot. “Yeah, mom?”
“You look good, Katie. You really do.”
I smiled. “Thanks, mom. Bye.”
It wasn’t until I had parked on campus that I wondered why I hadn’t told my mother that I loved her back.
I hadn't slept all night. They had kept me awake with their loud, intoxicated voices. Fort the longest time, I imagined that this was how all adults' parties went—passing around needles, smoking up, drinking until they passed out. Now the house was silent, everyone had left a few hours ago. Paul still slept, but I knew he would be awake soon. I got up and quickly walked across the cold concrete floor, into the kitchen.
There, curled up in a corner, was my mother. Her head leaned against the wall, her mouth slightly open. She was pale and lifeless. I moved toward her to wake her up and move her to her bed, as I'd done numerous times before. But his time was different. This time, she wouldn't get up. I began to cry, to shake her harder. Nothing worked.
My worst fear was coming true. My mother wasn't waking up.
I hadn't thought about that incident for a while, probably since I had dreamed it last month. The dream always ended the same way, with me crying because my mother wouldn't wake up. The reality, however, was different. I had gone downstairs to the neighbor's house (after hiding all the drug stuff, of course—she would have put us out, kids or no kids, if she knew about that) to call an ambulance. They came and took my mother to the hospital. Paul and I followed in the neighbor's car.
They brought her around and had her in detox for almost a week. I went to see her every day, and every day was the same—she'd act happy to see me, then she'd ask me what I brought her, and who I had gotten it from so she’d know who to pay back. When I told her nothing, she'd get angry—violent once—and call me all sorts of things. Worthless, ungrateful, I was just like my father, things like that. But her favorite thing seemed to be to call me useless. “God, you’re useless!” she’d shriek. I didn’t even try to remind her that if I were so useless, then my brother and myself, not to mention her, would be dead. So I just let her go on and on with her tirades. “Get out of here! Get out! You're no good to anyone! Out! Get out!" Every day ended with those words. But they didn't hurt. Maybe it was just because I knew that she was literally out of her mind when she was saying them; maybe it was because at the age of fifteen I had seen and been through so much that no real emotion seemed to register. Some days she'd just cry. The entire hour I would sit there, by her bed, and she'd cry. No words, just free-flowing tears. That hurt me more than anything she ever called me. I could feel my mother's pain, and it was real and searing. Those days I tried to leave early so I could clean myself up before going home.
During this time, they tracked down my dad. I went home one afternoon from seeing mom (it had been one of those crying days) and there he was, sitting in our kitchen with Paul on his lap and a social worker across from them. They had decided that it would be best for us to go and live with him, at least until my mother had gotten under control. I knew then when he said that that we wouldn’t be living with mom ever again.
We collected our things and left. They wouldn't let us go to the hospital to tell mom where we were going, so I left a note on the kitchen counter. All it said was 'we've gone to live with dad. Don't worry, we're okay.' Looking back on it later on, I thought that it was funny—I left a note for a drug addict not to worry about her kids, who she hadn't worried about since day one? How ironic.
I hadn't thought about that day in a long time, but I found myself daydreaming that scene in my English Lit class. It’s because you let her back in, I could hear me telling myself. It’s because you’re too trusting. How do you know she’s not ransacking your house right now? God, you’re stupid. How could you let her back in? Don’t you remember what she did to you last time? Do you really want that again? It shook me, so I excused myself to the bathroom, where I washed my face, pushed it away, cleared my head, and returned to the real world.
“Why did I think about that? I mean, I haven’t thought about that—or really any of this—for years.”
Dana nodded slowly. “Well, that’s probably true, but you’ve got to remember that this is a big trigger, Katie. You remember what I told you about triggers, right?"
"Yeah," I mumbled, "but I thought that I'd be over that by now. I thought that I would have healed over that."
She leaned back and gave me a look. "Katie, you should know that you never just 'get over' a thing like this. Your mother basically abandoned you for drugs, thereby stripping you of your childhood. You said so yourself. And," she went on, "rather than deal with everything then, you decided to put it away. When you do that—"
"I know, I know. 'When you do that, it just lies there dormant until it's triggered. Then it manifests itself in dreams and memories.' You've told me that a million times." I leaned back in my chair. "Well, this trigger is pulled all the way back."
Dana tapped her pen on the arm of her chair. "Katie, I'm wondering if this was a wise idea to begin with."
"What do you mean?"
She paused. "Well, taking your mother back in after all this time. I mean, the way that she hurt you so long ago…I'm not sure that I would have."
I looked out the window. "Up until a day ago, I didn't think I would have, either. But seeing her out there, just standing on my front porch…it was like she was dependent on my approval. On my love. On my acceptance. Almost like she was…" I fumbled for the word.
"Addicted?" Dana offered.
I looked back at her. "She's different now, Dana. She's changed completely."
"Are you sure?" I felt that her eyes were burning holes into me.
I leaned forward and dropped my voice. "If you could see her now, you'd agree with me."
She nodded and wrote something down on the notepad resting on her knees.
"Mom, where are we going?" I asked for what seemed to be the fiftieth time.
"Take a left at this stoplight," she said, evading my question as she had the other times I had asked it. She tapped her cigarette ashes out of the cracked window, and in my side view mirror I saw the glowing embers hit the ground and die as we waited for the green arrow to light up.
It was the following Friday night. I had passed my history midterm, and to celebrate, mom decided that she wanted to take me out, much the same way that we had been out before. She told me to pick her up and we would go out to eat at a restaurant that I had never heard of. So I went, thinking that it would just be a quick dinner at a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, and I could get back to the university library to study for my next midterm the following Tuesday. So imagine my surprise when I pulled up in the parking lot of an expensive, posh restaurant. For some reason, as soon as I put my car in park and my mother squeezed my hand from the passenger seat, I knew that studying had been sacked.
We had just finished dinner when my mother had said, "Now the fun starts." She refused to drive, stating that it was my car, and she knew the way there better from the passenger seat.
"Give me one of those," I asked her as the arrow turned green and I pulled away from the stoplight onto a side street.
"This is such a nasty habit. I never thought you would take up something so addictive," she said, but she handed one over anyway.
"I can think of worse things," I said, fumbling with the lighter and trying to keep the car in my lane at the same time. Why I said it, I don't know. Maybe I was still reliving that awful daydream over again subconsciously. Maybe I was still seething from my session with Dana. Or maybe I was trying to make my assumption about my mother even more solid in my mind.
There was a silence, and I could feel her eyes on me. "I really am sorry, you know, Katie," she said. "Addiction is…it's just…I wanted—"
"You don't have to explain, Mom," I cut in. "Really. It's okay." Even though it really wasn't; even though I felt as if I had been cheated of my childhood; even though somewhere in my heart and soul she was unforgivable, I said it was okay. I wasn't ready for this conversation yet.
I tapped ashes out of my cracked window. My mother peered down the street. "I think there's a policeman up here in this parking lot." She sounded fairly anxious.
"It's just a speed trap," I said nonchalantly. How many of those did I speed through in the course of a day?
"He'll pull you, Katie. Slow down." The anxiety in her voice swelled.
"Mom, I'm only five over. He's not going to pull me." But out of blind obedience, I slowed down from fifty to forty-five.
We rode in silence until she pointed up the street to a place where I could see a neon sign peeking through the sea of concrete and glass.
"There," she said quietly. "Turn in there." She threw her cigarette out of the window, then rolled it up. I parked the car and shut off the engine.
"Are you ready to go in?" I asked, after I had checked myself in the mirror. “I hope you know that I’ve never been here before—we’re going strictly on your word that this place is any good.”
She shook her head around, tossing her hair a little bit, then looked over at me—or rather, at my side. "Where's your purse?"
"I don't have one," I told her. "I don’t need one, really. Everything I really need is in my wallet." The philosophy I followed was that if it didn't fit into my wallet or pocket, it was expendable.
"Bull." My mother shook her head. "Every girl needs a purse." She put the passenger seat up and started digging around in the back seat. She emerged a short time later, holding a light brown sugar colored suede purse. "Here, take this," she said, holding it out to me. "It suits your personality."
"What does that mean?" I asked her playfully. But to humor her, I took the purse and slipped my wallet into it, then as an afterthought, I threw my compact and a pack of gum in after it.
She shut the car door. "Perfect. Let's go have fun."
We got home around midnight. "That place really wasn't any good," my mother kept saying all the way home. "If we would have gone to this one place that I know of, we would have stayed longer. We would have had more fun. Did you have a good time, Katie?"
"Yes, mom. That was the most fun I've had in a long time." It wasn't a lie. For every Friday night since I had started college, I had stayed at home either working on a paper or watching some old black-and-white movie on channel 7. The only Fridays I went out was when I was dating a guy named Jacob. We would go out, then come back to my house, where he would try to put the moves on me, and I would resist his advances each time. One Friday night, though, I didn’t resist. The week later, we stopped seeing each other.
"I'm glad you had fun, sweetie. You deserve it. Getting into college is enough of an accomplishment, but passing the way that you are…" She took down a glass from the cabinet, then stopped. "Katie?"
"Yeah?" I had moved to my bedroom to change so I could go to bed. I wasn't used to partying yet, and I was tired.
"When you come out, can we talk?"
What I dreaded was finally coming. The talk that I had been furtively putting off. "Okay, mom. I'll be out in a minute."
I dressed in my sweatpants and t-shirt quickly. As I put my hand on the door, a flash of memory took my breath away:
Dad was taking us to school, because we were running late that morning and we had missed the bus. It was cold that day, and I didn’t want to walk the five blocks. We stood outside the townhouse, jumping up and down to keep warm while dad locked the door. As we started down the stairs, he stopped.
"Jackie, you're not supposed to be here," he said.
There was my mother, sounding as if she was intoxicated, holding her arms open to Paul and me. "My babies! I found you, my angels!" Her words were slightly slurred, and even from a distance of nearly eight feet, I could see her eyes were bloodshot. Dad took a step down as Paul and I went back up and stood at the top of the stairs.
"Jackie, you can't see them. You know that."
"Jesus, Frank," my mother screamed, "they're my children! You stole my children!"
"Jackie, calm down."
"You took them! Kidnapper! Thief! They're my kids! Mine, Frank! Give me my kids!"
Dad ushered us into the house as mom continued her drug-induced hysteria outside on the sidewalk. He looked at me. "Go call you and Paul's schools and tell them you won't be in today."
I moved to the phone in the hallway, and picked up the receiver. Through the window, I could hear my mother out on the street. The hysterical yelling had given way to racking sobs. "Please, Frank…give me my kids back. I love them…I'll never do it again, any of it. Please, Frank…"
I hung up the phone and retreated to my room. I climbed into bed, pulled the covers up, and stayed there the rest of the day, not even getting up when my father came in to get me for play rehearsal.
I closed my eyes to combat the memory, then turned the door handle and walked out to the kitchen. It was time to put these demons to rest.
I came into the kitchen and pulled a bottle of water from the refrigerator, then sat down across from mom at the kitchen table. I didn't say a word; I just waited for her to start. After a few minutes, she took a sip of coffee, and began, keeping her eyes in the cup.
"You know, your father and I were together long before you were born. We started dating when we were sophomores in high school."
She stopped. I still didn't say anything. After a minute, she continued.
"Both of us used to smoke pot. But that was really as far as your dad would go. After you were born, though, we kind of split up for a while. During that time, I got involved with Darren. He was the one that got me hooked on coke. We'd do that stuff at least twice a day. Then he went to jail for possession, and a few years later, Frank and I got back together. He was clean then, and I was trying. I really was. I wasn't doing coke then, but I was still getting it to Darren in jail. Frank never caught on. We stayed together until Paul was one and a half. Then Darren got out of jail, and we started to see each other. Just as friends, though. I would never have cheated on your dad. That's when I started doing heroin. When Frank found out, he basically booted me out of his life. He wanted to keep you two, but when I left, I took you with me. I was mad at him, and I wanted to hurt him. I realize now that I should have left you out of it.
"Darren kept getting me smack, and I kept using it. It was an escape. The high that it left me with was just…I can't even really describe it. I guess you don't really understand what I'm talking about. I don't suppose you would, unless you were an addict.
“I couldn't hold a job because any drug test I would take would come back positive, and I felt terrible that I couldn’t be a good mother to you and Paul. But the only way I knew to feel better was to shoot up more.
“I really wanted to get my act together after you had to call 911 that time I almost overdosed." She looked up. "Yeah, I remember that. I remember you coming to see me, and I remember what I said and how I acted. You realize that wasn't me talking, it was the withdrawal." She took my chin in her hands. "You know I didn't mean any of that, right?"
I nodded. She sighed, and continued.
"When they let me out of the hospital, and I got your note, I felt so bad. In a moment of weakness, I called Darren. He wanted to come over, but I told him he didn't have to. A few days later, though, he brought over a bunch of heroin, and before I knew it, I was smacked up. Pretty soon, he had convinced me that I didn't need to keep going to rehab.
"I kept trying to find you, but half the time I was so drugged that I didn't even know what I was doing. I don't even remember that day that I came over to your father's house. But after I spent the night in jail, I decided to get straight. I went onto rehab, and I haven't shot up since then. I'm done with that stuff."
She reached across the table and took my hands. "I'm not telling you this to justify what I know is unjustifiable, and I'm not telling you this to clear my conscience. I'm telling you this because I want to apologize. I made your life a living hell, and I'm so sorry for that." Tears began to stream down her face. "God, Katie, I'm so sorry. What I did was unforgivable, but…"
I got up, went around the table, and put my arms around her. "Shh, mom. It's okay, that's the past. You're here now, that's all that matters. Don't cry, mom…I still love you."
For a few moments, I was the adult once again, and she was the distraught child.
“Katie, are you sure you know what you’re doing? I mean, do you know what you’re getting into?”
I twisted the telephone cord around my pointer finger. “She’s changed, Paul. I know it. She’s made a complete turn-around. It’s almost like she’s a completely different person.”
He sighed. We talked on the phone religiously every Sunday. I guess because of everything that we went through as kids, we were unusually close as brother and sister. “Katie, just…all I’m saying is that…maybe you should be careful. I mean, this is mom we’re talking about.”
“She’s changed, Paul. Really.”
“Katie, why are you making excuses for her if she’s changed so much? When did she just show up at your house again?”
“Last Thursday,” I said.
“How can you be so sure that she’s changed in only two weeks?”
“I just know, that’s how.” I could feel myself getting a defensive tone.
"Have you been with her every single waking moment since she's been back? Have you kept a close eye on her? How do you know what she's doing while you're at school? God, Katie, what if she's still using and gets caught in your house? Or worse—what if she's dealing from your house?"
"She wouldn't do that, Paul. You weren't here a few nights ago when she sat here at this kitchen table and poured her heart out to me. Jesus, Paul, she cried like a baby. She's genuinely changed, I can tell."
There was silence on Paul's end.
"She's the adult now, Paul."
He waited a few seconds before asking, "Where is she now?"
"She's not here," I said. "She always goes out running in the morning."
He paused again, then sighed. “All right, Katie. All right. Just be sure you know exactly what you’re getting into.”
We hung up.
I walked out of my room, and passed through the living room on my way to the kitchen. To my horror, my mother was sitting on the sofa. She was back earlier than usual. I guess I scared her too, because she started. My first thought was that she had heard what Paul had said about her. But then my paranoia subsided when I remembered that there was only one phone in the house, and I had been using it. It was only then that I noticed the amber colored, white safety-capped bottle of prescription pills.
“Mom? What are those?” I couldn’t keep the suspicion out of my voice, and I didn’t try. I felt my stomach and illusions falling out from under me. If Paul was right…
“These?” She looked at the bottle and held it up so I could read the label. “They’re for my back. I strained it at a job that I had a few years ago. It didn’t require surgery, but it still hurts, so…” She must have caught the look in my eyes, the look that said that while my mind believed her, something in my soul just couldn’t.
She leveled her gave at me, looked right into my eyes. “Katie, I’m not like that anymore.”
I threw myself into her arms; suddenly, unexpectedly. The bottle of pills fell from her hand as her arms, forever stained with the scars of past bad decisions, closed tightly around me.
“Sweetheart…what is it? What’s got you so upset?”
“Nothing,” I mumbled into her shirt. “Paul called.”
I could feel her stiffen. “Your brother called? Why didn’t you let me talk to him?”
“You were running.”
As she continued to embrace me the way that she never had when I was younger, I felt something small and wet fall on my shoulder and slowly sink into my shirt, seeming to go through my skin…
I woke up on the sofa, my neck stiff from sleeping on my English Lit book. I had been covered with a throw cover. I smiled and stretched. It was the following Friday, and I found myself wondering what mom and I would do tonight. I had gotten used to us going out and having fun. I was starting to get used to having my mother back in my life. Going into the kitchen, I saw that the coffee hadn't brewed yet. I flipped the switch to 'on' and moved into the bedroom to shower quickly before I had to leave for classes.
The door was open, the bed wasn't made. That was unusual. Normally she made her bed before she went on her morning run. I went into the bedroom and started pulling the sheets up. I noticed the closet door was open. The suitcase was gone.
No, I thought. There's no way that she'd do this to me. But the logical, rational part of me knew that I had to check.
I opened my dresser drawers. Some of my clothes were gone. My jewelry box was empty. The stash of money that I kept hidden for an emergency in my underwear drawer was gone. So was the little bit of money that I had between Luke and John in an old Bible - a book I had little to no use for, which was why the money was hidden there. I suddenly had a throbbing headache, and I moved to the bathroom, where the shock of my life awaited me. I pulled open the door to the medicine cabinet. There were bottles of different pills—antidepressants, Valium, prescription migraine medicine, Tylenol, and some painkillers left over from some oral surgery I had. All the amber colored bottles were lighter, and didn't make that light clicking noise that they did had they contained what they were supposed to. All empty. I had been cleaned out by my dishonest mother and her new addiction.
Most people in my situation would have just cried their eyes out. Heck, I even know a few who would have punched a hole in the wall. But not me. I just swept the empty bottles into my purse, the only thing besides bad memories that my mother had left me with this time. I was wrong. Nothing had really changed. Now, my day had an extra item on the to-do list. I had to go to the pharmacy to get these prescriptions refilled.
I’ve got to give Paul credit. When I told him about how mom had cleaned me out, he didn’t even say ‘I told you so.’
I was eighteen years old, sitting up in bed, panting, sweating, trying to shake off the memory of the nightmare that I had been jolted from. I didn't notice that I was crying. I pushed my hair, damp with the sweat of a fearful dreamer, out of my face and closed my eyes, reliving what I just wanted to forget.
It had been so real. God, it had been so real.
My mother was standing beside my father's grave, so new that his death date hadn't yet been inscribed nor had the dirt mound that signaled to passers-by that a new person had taken up residence there. That was the thing that had really tipped me off that this was a dream—my mother hadn't been at dad's funeral. For some reason, I approached her. It was almost like I couldn’t stop. As if I was being drawn to her; as if she had a magnetic force of some type that I was caught in. As if she had been reading my thoughts, as I reached her side, she looked at me and said only two words: 'opposites attract.' Suddenly I felt a warmth moving through my veins, down my legs, to my toes, through my arms and fingers, creeping upward to my brain. I looked down and saw my mother drawing a needle from my stomach. Immediately I began to panic. My heart raced; I gasped. I looked up at my mother, as the poison began to distort my vision. "But, why…?" She withdrew the needle from her own vein, and her tracks seemed to be a web that was strangling me. I was being strangled. I gasped for breath as she pushed me away, down on the ground, and said two more words, more mockingly this time. 'Alikes repel.' The last thing I saw was her spitting on my father's grave.
It was only now that I realized that tears were sliding down my cheeks. I could breathe now, but I still couldn't shake it. As I got out of bed and padded to the bathroom, I thought about calling Paul, but decided against it. I was twenty-one, in college, old enough to take care of myself. Besides, he was seventeen, probably in bed by now at Grandy and Paw's house. Or maybe he was like me, awake in the middle of the night trying to shake a nightmare.
I filled a cup of water and went back to bed, but I didn't fall asleep. I laid there, wishing my dad were still alive to come over and wrap his strong arms around me and tell me that it would be okay. I asked God to keep me straight, not to turn me into a person like my mother—a drug addict. I closed my eyes and rocked myself gently, but all I could hear were my mother's words—'opposites attract, alikes repel.'
I made myself a promise that night. If I ever became like that, I would shoot myself.
I stayed in the shower until the scalding water that had sprayed me and turned my back and chest as red as a bad sunburn turned frigid and cooled me to the core. I got out of the shower shaking like a leaf—not only because I was freezing, but from anger as well. I thought about skipping classes that day, but normalcy was what I needed. I needed to sink into my routine; I needed to disappear into it.
After I had showered and dressed to go to classes, I stood in the middle of my room, still the way that my mother had left it after she had ransacked it. Still untouched, except for the few open dresser drawers that I had open in a frantic search to clear my mother's name. I picked up my bookbag, then the purse.
I stopped. I took all of the contents out, put my wallet in the back pocket of my jeans, swept the empty bottles into the otherwise empty front pocket of my bookbag, then picked up the purse and left the house. On the way to my car, I took a detour to the side of my house where the two green plastic trash cans were sitting upright against the peeling house. I threw the purse into the first one, then slammed the top down.
"Thanks, Jackie," I muttered. "Thanks a lot."