by Maura O’Shea
The series begins here.
Emma says she needs a sober boyfriend—someone to motivate her to stay sober. She says she needs to get laid fast.
After my first stepdad, Bruce, died, Emma found a bunch of pictures my mother had taken of herself on her computer. We cringed, then laughed and made fun of her, because they were supposed to be “sexy pictures,” pictures to post on Craigslist—pictures always taken in the mirror with a flash, always from the neck down. Except, because she is our mother, it didn’t occur to her to change her clothes, to put something flattering on. So she was taking all these body shots in the mirror with her head cut off, lifting up the top of her stained shirt, exposing her belly—and right there was the drawstring of her sweatpants. “Who takes sexy pics in sweatpants? You can see the drawstring!” Emma said. Though we laughed, we were secretly mortified and horrified by the discovery of these non R-rated pictures. Mom was on a dating rampage.
After my parents split up, my Mom moved to Philadelphia to be with Bruce, although she still won’t admit it to this day. The first time we went to visit her, the week before Christmas, about 4 or 5 months after she had moved away, she had emailed us to “warn” us that she had a boyfriend. When we told her we didn’t feel quite ready to meet him, she decided to pick us up at the airport with him.
In the car we were angry, but she had a “you don’t like it, tough shit, better get used to it, ‘cause this is how it is” attitude. She said we were being rude, brats. But something was different this time. I was eighteen, and my older sister Jane was 20, and we were insisting that she hadn’t listened to, or respected us. What she had done had been insensitive, put us in an uncomfortable position.
She got so mad she ended up dropping us off at the train station in Baltimore that night, just me and Jane. I remember seeing Emma’s pleading eyes. We left her there, to ride out the rest of the week with Mom and Bruce, alone, twelve years old. We took a train that night. It was snowy and cold. We called our Dad and he wired us money. The next morning, Christmas Eve, we flew out of Philadephia, back home.
A few weeks ago, I picked Emma up from Jane’s house and drove her to my Mom’s for dinner. I had worked that Sunday morning, serving brunch, and was physically exhausted. We couldn’t decide whether to drive over Sunday night or Monday morning. My Mom had lured me to into a visit with promises of a nice lunch and an oil change for my car. I had no money, and was desperate. Plus, Emma needed a ride back to Mom’s at some point. I picked her up Sunday after work, and on the drive over, she told me about her most recent stint in rehab. I hadn’t seen her since her birthday, over a month before, when she had decided to go back into in-patient. She had turned 26, which complicated the issue of insurance, with Obamacare, or being covered under my Mother’s insurance. 26 was the cutoff age the government had decided, that yes, you should have a grown up job now—a job with benefits, health insurance, 401K. So a lot of places wouldn’t take her. The only in-patient place she could find was down in San Diego, and she had hated it. There had been a lot of Jesus talk; a lot of the people there had been bigots, racists, religious freaks. The few times I had been able to talk to her, when I saw a strange number pop up on the phone and was actually able to answer, she’d say, “You’ve reached North Korea!”
She says, “I mean, I’ve been on painkillers everyday for years. It doesn’t just feel normal all of a sudden to not be.”
She tells me about when she tried to insist on checking herself out, how they had called an ambulance, put her in a straight jacket, and she was locked in a large, brightly-lit room with a bunch of mentally ill patients. She spent an entire 24 hours in a psych ward in the ER —people screaming at nothing, cursing, hitting things, making threats, getting in her face, flailing about. She says she just sat in the corner and cried the whole time, and it “broke her.” I wonder if she is saying she hit a “bottom,” if maybe this whole experience was actually good, or motivating or something, though I don’t say that.
When we get to Mom’s, we realize that today was the playoff game. It becomes apparent, very quickly, that Mom is hammered. She can’t quite talk, or open her eyes. We ask who won, and she slurs, “The Seahawks, they’ll place, um… Seattle.”
This whole football thing is left over from Bruce. Being from Philadelphia, Bruce was a stereotypical Eagles fan: violent, obsessive, and aggressive. When they got together she grew her hair long, started the Atkins diet, and for Eagles games she painted her face half green, half white, screaming along with the crowd. She loved football! She had always loved football, she claimed.
She says she made a seafood soup for dinner, and goes over to the stove— embarrassed in a drunk, proud, obstinate way—and dumps soup from a container into a big pan on the stove. She hums loudly while stirring and keeps eating the soup while it is cold, out of the pan, with her fingers, until Emma asks her to stop, says it is grossing her out. Mom brings the soup over in big bowls, lukewarm, some sort of risotto soup dish, with scallops and shrimp, cream and zucchini. It leaves a bitter aftertaste. Emma says it tastes like something in it has gone bad. It tasted fine when we first started eating, maybe because I was so hungry, but she’s right about the aftertaste—each bite is more acidic, each bite tastes more like something rotting, or left unrefrigerated for too long.
My only memory from before Mom quit drinking the first time (before she started again):
I was probably four, so Jane was either five or six. Mom is still asleep upstairs, but we are hungry. We have dragged a chair from the kitchen table over to the counter. Jane climbs from the chair, onto the counter, and is reaching, jumping at points, to get at the cereal that is on the top shelf in the pantry. She jumps again, grazing the bottom of the box enough with her fingers to knock the Kix loose. It falls backwards and upside down, spilling the little white cornballs all over the kitchen floor, but we are happy. We smile at each other. We pick the handfuls of cereal from the floor in both palms and collect them in bowls, adding more from the bag, and pour milk over them. We return, accomplished, in our one-piece pajamas, back to our place on the living room floor, in front of the television.