THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM
The bell rang at exactly one. I’d been waiting on the stairs, but now that they were here, I hesitated. Mom was in the kitchen, stabbing microwave buttons as she nuked her Folgers. Even though she had agreed to this (in a tight-lipped sort of way), she had done the morning crossword in silence, flicking her pen across the grid as though issuing mini slaps, and for the first time it occurred to me this could fail in more ways than one.
I forced an exhale. This train has already left the station.
Mom’s best friend Jean and her boyfriend and some guy I didn’t know were standing on the porch, arranged neatly in a comma. I smiled at the stranger, because he was old and smiling at me, and because this is what I do, yet inside, I wondered, who the hell was he?
I led everyone into the formal living room, careful as always to step around the tiger rug with its flattened body, mouth displaying yellowed daggery teeth in a roar. It had never seemed right to walk on an animal, even (especially?) if it was dead.
Mom drifted into the room, scratched 7-11 mug in hand. She was wearing jeans, a black-and-white Indian print, fuzzy fuchsia socks and the sweet, slightly sheepish expression she had with strangers. Ten eyes darted around until Gary, Jean’s boyfriend, cleared his throat. With his peppery hair and round, scholarly glasses, he came across serious, a bit somber. Sober.
“This is Mickey,” he said, gesturing to the old guy, to Andy Rooney’s twin, “someone with a lot of recovery under his belt.”
I swiveled in Mickey/Andy’s direction, that nervous grin still on my face. The whole point of having Gary, a near-stranger himself, was for all the recovery under his belt, I thought, let alone a complete fucking unknown in my mother’s house but I nodded, something sinking an inch or so inside. Greetings and handshakes were exchanged. Mom half-heartedly offered water, coffee, anything, and we took our seats.
For most of the morning I’d hidden upstairs in my room writing, steadying my nerves and avoiding Mom. I’d filled page after page, my hand barely keeping up with the ink. All is well, I scribbled. Fake it til you make it. In Al-Anon they said that overly focusing on the alcoholic was our disease, so at the top of the page I added and underlined, Everyone is on their own journey and Let go and let God.
But there were other things too, like what to mention. The bottles of Paul Masson Chablis in her closet, her growing thinness? The cigarettes left burning into the night; the sudden, and bizarre loss of teeth? How far were we going to take this?
In exactly ninety-two days, I would be leaving for college. Leaving Mom, after eighteen years under her roof. Leaving because that’s what kids were supposed to do. Did I bring up the split tracks that undergirded almost every conversation we had, the parallel high and low wires that hummed when we talked, how what to pack for college or the upcoming family reunion were, on the surface, innocuous subjects, but down under, in the murky depths, they were loaded, my other mind doing the math: In three months, I’ll be one hour and forty-five minutes away – not even remotely close enough to save you drunk in a bathtub?
After debating it for weeks, with Jean’s support, I’d arranged today’s intervention. It was the best chance we had, maybe even the last chance, and if we didn’t give it a try, wouldn’t we always wonder? And miracles did happen. I felt them all the time in Al-Anon meetings. Jean and I often went together, hashing everything out on the way home. She was always connecting the dots between things big and small, giving examples of how the Universe was working in our lives. I liked that: the Universe. It felt soft and grand at the same time, as though it loved everyone everywhere. There was no reason why a miracle couldn’t happen here, today, why some of that light couldn’t shine into this living room. Into my mother.
Mom took the antique chair by the window, in front of the silk Chinese screen. Mickey took the seat next to her, while Jean, Gary and I flocked to the couch across the room. It was already us against her. Gary adjusted his spectacles and small-talked, trying to reduce the electricity in the air, but I was thinking how I couldn’t remember ever sitting in this room. This space had been arranged by Dad’s interior designer. Museum lighting illuminated swirly paintings; teak tables tensed for drinks; dusty glass grapes occupied a bowl. He had had it remodeled three years earlier, before deciding to travel the world. He had come by with his backpack bursting with white tube socks, Bermudas and Hostellers International, and convinced Mom, from whom he was separated, to move in. We got a nice house; his mortgage was covered. A great deal for everyone, he said.
“Well.” Mickey rubbed his spotty, grandfatherly hands together, and leaned forward. A handkerchief peeked from a corner of his denim shirt pocket. “Let’s get started.”
He wanted to know who else was in the family and where they were. I explained that one sister was studying at Princeton, the other, Tufts; my twin brother had moved out three months before, a mile away, and wasn’t interested; our parents were no longer together. Then I held my breath. This wasn’t the way you were supposed to do these things, I knew. Not having everyone here could minimize the impact, let Mom hang on to her denial, jeopardize the overall effectiveness of the intervention, but Mickey only nodded, his fuzzy eyebrows twitching. He’d been here before all right: Dysfunction Junction.
Traitorous-me glanced at Mom. She was chewing the inside of her cheek, a faraway expression on her face. Everyone else would be off the hook.
The whole truth was, I hadn’t even mentioned it to Dad. He’d never have approved of airing dirty laundry and there was just too much to lose if he pulled one of his smirks. My brother wasn’t coming because, in his view, Mom didn’t need something like this and it wasn’t going to work anyway. She wasn’t as bad as most alcoholics, he’d said, and as drunk as I had been the other night at the party, was I really the best person to be organizing it?
Mickey asked Mom where she worked. “For the County” she said and then uncrossed and recrossed her legs. Her colleagues really couldn’t know about this, she added, or she’d lose her job. He blinked back at her, slowly, reassuringly, letting her know he was a man of many secrets.
Watching him in action, I relaxed back into the couch. How many Sunday nights had Mom and I watched 60 Minutes with Andy Rooney dipping towards the camera and intoning in that elderly, nasal voice, Have you ever wondered… and gone on to laugh or learn something?
Not long ago, we had been lying on the couch, heads at opposite ends. It was a sleepy, cozy Sunday, the smell of her lobster bisque filling the room. I was reading Jane Eyre for the second time; Mom was in a fetal position, hands folded under a cheek, napping. The worse her wine-fueled insomnia got, the more she day-slept. Nights, she’d wander the hall between our rooms, padding up and down the steep stairs to the kitchen. Now she rolled to her other side and the smell of fermented grapes drifted downwind.
On the floor next to us was our basset, also asleep. She let out a loud doggy snore that woke Mom up. Scooting her icy feet under me and fishing out The Life of Elizabeth I from the crack of the couch, she grabbed a handful of Doritos and passed the bag to me as though she’d only just blinked and not been asleep for half an hour.
“God, I love this book,” I said.
She looked over, licking orange salt from her fingers.
“Me too. It’s probably the best book ever written. Read Wuthering Heights next.”
“Listen to this,” I said. “‘If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.’”
She considered this, nodding. “That’s true. Holding your own counsel is a very good thing.”
Gary took over, spelling out how interventions worked. First he and Mickey would give the AA-perspective, and then Jean and I would have an opportunity to express how her alcoholism had affected us personally. Ideally, anyone impacted by her drinking would’ve been present, particularly family members. Ideally, she would agree to a treatment program by the end of today’s meeting.
Mom had on her listening face – head tilted, hand contemplatively covering mouth, eyes wide and bright – but I knew anything could be churning inside. Gary’s debriefing certainly wasn’t coming as a newsflash to her – interventions were old hat. She had a Master’s in counseling, after all, and had once been a substance abuse evaluator for the county.
Tag-teaming, Gary and Mickey detailed how they landed in AA after watching the bottoms fall out of their lives. Thanks to the grace of God, their sorry asses had been dragged through the door and they’d started practicing ‘attitude of gratitude’ and living life on life’s terms. AA had been the absolute last stop on the train; now Gary had ten years of sobriety; Mickey, eighteen.
Mom’s eyes flickered Mickey’s direction. Ten years was good, but eighteen was a lifetime. Mine, in fact. I watched her watching him and hoped that I was right, that she was casting an admiring glance on his dry years and not having a mental field day with the twelve-step clichés, her inner cynic backing her right out of the conversation. Maybe she was even remembering Andy Rooney too, his cranky but sagacious way, his certitude. Who wouldn’t want to hear, to trust, his tale of recovery?
Before Jean got started, she asked if she could smoke. Mom said sure and gestured to the marble ashtray, looking as though she’d kill for one too but her hands stayed pressed in her lap.
After some deep drags, Jean said that she really had had a lot of hope for Mom when Mom started going to AA. After all, she was the smartest, most with-it person she’d ever met. And the most fun. But she had to face facts when Mom accepted a 90-day sobriety chip after showing up to the meetings with alcohol on her breath.
This had been worrying me too. The two of them had been going to open meetings for the past few months – Mom as the AA-er and Jean as supportive friend – and as Mom would head out the door, a tattered copy of Bill W. faithfully tucked under an arm, I’d often caught a whiff of something I shouldn’t. How long could she bullshit a room full of bullshitters, I’d wondered? What was worse, if I could smell it, then eventually Jean would too, and she was Mom’s last friend standing.
As Jean talked, Mom fiddled with the hem of her blouse, her shoulders starting to sag. She obediently maintained eye contact but the way that she sat, hunched over, stacked on her legs, reminded me of a card table folded up on itself. I used to walk on that back, I thought. She’d lie on the floor, face mashed into a rug, a pretty version of Munch’s Scream, as my nine-year-old self inched along the alleys of her spine. Arms plane-like for balance, I sidestepped kidneys, toes fluttering over ribs, and she’d moan. I would freeze, afraid I’d hurt her but she insisted I hadn’t, keep going! Whenever a vertebra clicked into place, she’d grunt, a hollow thud of pleasure, as though my feet were dancing Fred Astaire’s magic and I was a miracle worker who’d shown up just in the nick of time.
Studying her, I suddenly wanted to bear-hug her, to feel her small bones against mine again, to touch the hair that I used to comb sitting cuddled up behind her while we watched TV. We would eat something she’d cooked and I could rattle off my high school problems, her face tilted my direction – still, listening, never interrupting. Later, I would go to bed first, knowing she had it handled, “Night, sweetie,” the last words that I heard.
Maybe we should bag this whole thing, I thought now with alarm, maybe things weren’t so bad. Maybe I was overreacting (as usual I could hear my brother say), maybe we could find a different way. Because this was starting to seem mean; cruel, even.
But now it was my turn.
“I worry a lot because of your drinking, ” I said, my voice a thin, quivering reed, octaves higher than normal. “I’m always scared something bad is going to happen to you.”
I took a deep breath, pulling in the smell of Jean’s gum and peachy shampoo, the feel of her beige skirt grazing my leg, longing to grab her hand for courage. The designer museum and its visitors waited; Mom, the naughty child, stood by for her spanking. The goody-two-shoes daughter considered her ammo and widened her aim.
Pushing on, I rattled off incidents that had been cauterized into memory. When my brother fell in the park and his face needed stitches and she was blotto and couldn’t drive; that terrible time wondering where she was and then the cops outside, red and blue revolving in the darkness; her somersaulting down the stairs in the middle of the night and ending up in the hospital; all the times she’d been passed out when I came home and the doors, unlocked, a cigarette still glowing in the ashtray, needing to gauge her chest for breathing.
Mom’s hazel eyes were trained on me; they were watery. Mine slid to the carpet. I imagined the smoking, drinking, teenaged-girl in her spitting on my prim Mary Janes. There was the sound of her sniffling. I wondered if anyone could see my heart heaving against its wall, my whole body convulsing with the urge to hurl itself over, under, anywhere from here.
That party had been at my brother Matt’s new apartment. It was my first time visiting; my first time to one of his keggers. Other than passing each other in the school hallway, I hadn’t seen him in awhile. The last time had been at Mom’s when he came over to raid the fridge. He’d moved out a few weeks before, basically to get away from Mom’s drinking, the drinking he now thought wasn’t a problem. The sight of him in shorts and flip-flops, a pencil tucked behind an ear, rifling through our food had enraged me.
You can’t have it both ways! I had screamed. (Or was it shrieked?) Get out! Get out!
At his party, seniors, juniors, and a few sophomore girls were crowded onto the rooftop deck; some guy stood right at the edge, tossing stones and ducking. The spring air was cool on my face; the black starry sky, a mass of hazy dominoes. I’d lost track of how many beers I’d downed. After awhile, they actually tasted pretty good. Swaying against the pulse of She Drives Me Crazy, the inside of my head full of fuzzy edges, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that this was the closest I would ever come to flying, to floating free, high, without my body. Unhinged from this terrible mind. I couldn’t shake the thought: This must be what Mom meant by wine giving her peace.
Weaving through the hordes of people, I went inside to find a bathroom. I passed Matt’s bedroom and ducked in. There was a box spring and mattress on the floor with a purple and turquoise comforter that had once been in my room, a Charlie Brown sheet and pillowcase. Stacked milk crates that he must’ve nicked from a grocery store held a mess of clothes, one served as a nightstand by his bed. Windows covered one whole wall and I could just make out dark shapes moving on the other side of the reflection. Feeling dizzy, I sat on the bed.
On the nightstand, half-buried behind some textbooks, I noticed a framed pencil drawing of Matt and me. In the picture, he was sitting and I was standing behind him, leaning forward, my arms protectively resting on his shoulders. He looked calm, solid, a slight smile on his lips. I couldn’t remember who had drawn it or when, but seeing it, I burst into tears. Moving out of Mom’s, he had seemed so cavalier about leaving, as if I were already a stranger, as if we had never shared a womb, but there I was, next to his bed, his one and only picture.
A minute later, his roommate walked in, looking for matches. Seeing me, he froze, then came and sat down. He was a Spanish exchange student from Granada; he and Matt had been friends for the past year. He saw the picture in my lap and reached to console me, setting off a fresh spasm of tears. There was the crunchy sound of gravel on the other side of the window, plastic cups being crushed; Take On Me suddenly electric in the air. Somebody shouting that the keg was empty. Leaning into him, his arm an anchor, I concentrated on the circle of his embrace, the heat of his attention.
Didn’t it often start this way? Girl crying, boy comforting, then girl and boy taking off their clothes? Because one minute I was wiping snot on my sleeve and the next, we were kissing and falling back on the bed. His face was soft against mine, his thin hands gentle in my hair. At school I’d never thought of him this way but now we were wet mouths and searching hands under the glaring light bulb, oblivious to the people just on the other side of the glass.
I pulled his mouth to mine, placed his hand on my breast. Later, I wouldn’t remember it all, mostly that I had been noisy and he had covered my mouth, that at some point he had gotten up and shut off the light, pulled the blinds. Thank God.
For the finale, you’re supposed to say how much you care, how much you love the alcoholic. This was the hardest part. I could fill journals with how much of my heart she had, how she was more a part of me than I was. I loved her so much it ached, a dull throbbing in my chest. If she died, I was sure I would too. But to tell this to her face was something else. With an uneasy smile, feeling like a snitch, a backstabber, a pseudo-daughter, I petered out with a flimsy I love you. She nodded once, then ducked her head.
Pregnant pauses; outside, the dog was woofing. A purple thread on the toe of my slipper sock was moving to some invisible breeze. Would it be days or weeks before it unraveled, rendering these unwearable?
It was time to wrap up. Four heads were turned on Mom, but she wasn’t volunteering much. Just nodding, looking even shyer than at the start, and thanking everyone. She promised that she was going to think it all over, very carefully. She understood how serious this was, certainly how peoples’ lives could be destroyed by alcoholism. She imagined she could get this under control, thank you for sharing your stories.
Everyone stood, as if a conductor had signaled the orchestra. Jean and I went to leave, giving the AA-ers time to talk, and I noticed then that Mom was sitting next to the porcelain elephant. It was my favorite heirloom of Dad’s, a beautiful, two-foot high antique with intricate brass inlay from Taiwan, or was it Vietnam?
I heard, You’re not alone. 90 meetings in 90 days.
A blast of garlic hit us like a wave in the kitchen: Mom’s croutons, to be tossed into her gazpacho, were turning golden on the stove.
“How do you think it went?” Jean whispered, giving me a hug and rubbing my back.
I shrugged. I was hoping Mom wasn’t out there snowing Mickey and Gary, that she would still be talking to me when they left. I was wondering if this would be the last straw for Jean. If she was going to jump ship now too. If the whole thing had been callous, ruthless, or maybe the opposite, hadn’t packed enough of a punch.
“Not bad,” I whispered back. “Hard to tell if she’s about to do the ostrich-head-in-the-sand-thing.”
Jean nodded, looking worried. She lit another cigarette and moved to the back door, holding it so the smoke blew out into the yard.
Maybe my brother had been right. Maybe she didn’t really need this; it wasn’t her style. Maybe I was the wrong person. Somebody else would’ve been better, braver, less of a hypocrite. They might’ve invited her supervisor, her six sisters and brothers; insisted all her daughters come home, that Dad chime in.
Said what I just couldn’t: When she’d fallen down the stairs and let out that wild-animal groan and all I could make out was a jumble of limbs, bathrobe, and a penny loafer on the step, I thought I’d lost her.
I opened the back door and let in the basset. She sausaged past to investigate the goings-on in the living room. But she had done the unexpected before, I reminded myself: learning to drive in her forties after swearing it off, morphing from old-school housewife to professional career woman.
The garlic smell had gone skunky, the croutons on the stove had started to burn, and I moved to turn off the flame.