It had been just a few weeks since my art school, ECA, counselor, released me from my emotional umbilical cord. “Your mother is not your responsibility.” I could not stop hearing her voice on repeat.
I finished finalizing the draft of the monologue I was submitting for a workshop the next day. It was just after midnight. I snuck off to bed and was just drifting when Mom cut my slumber short.
She shouted to me from the kitchen.
I obliged, expertly navigating the half-filled trash bags in the hallway. I waited to hear what she wanted, standing in the kitchen doorway, balancing one foot on a gallon-size glass cider jug, the other on a mound of damp trash. I wore sneakers over my skating tights and dress, which I had fallen asleep wearing. It was not a barefoot household. There were no slippers lined up in the entryway to slip into after leaving our dirty shoes on a mat. Besides, I got in trouble if I hurt my feet; it meant I could not figure skate, and this was Mom’s top priority. I rarely went without socks, never mind bare feet.
“What were you doing?” She bellowed over George Bailey’s out-of-tune wooing. It was her annual viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She was fumbling through her bulging canvas pill pouch.
“Going to bed.”
“Who said?” Smirking, she raised her eyes to mine. “Ah ha.” She found what she sought in her pouch and swallowed the pills with a gulp from the accordion bendy-straw protruding from her giant, filthy, teal insulated travel mug.
“I have school,” slipped weakly from my mouth, I knew it would not matter to her.
“I want this kitchen cleaned tonight, or you’re not going back to school.” She unzipped her glucometer case to take her blood sugar so that she could estimate how much insulin she would need to take to make up for the angel food cake she was about to devour.
She was eerily calm as if she had just said, “Good night honey, you need your sleep for school tomorrow.”
My report card from my afternoon art school was coming out soon, and I knew the grades would be straight A’s for the first time in my life. The grades from my regular high school, which I still attended mornings, were not so great – C’s, D’s, maybe a stray B or A, in gym class. I prioritized writing for the short periods in the evenings, after figure skating and before Mom decided it was time for me to “clean.” I was ill with an encroaching sense of the house opening its detachable jaws to consume me.
My fellow writers and the staff at the art school were helping me find my voice, and it was stronger than I ever imagined that it could be. My goal of going to college, to escape my home, to be a writer, seemed attainable.
Now, Mom was threatening the mere possibility of my escape. Many of her threats were bluffs, but I could not always tell one from the other. What I knew all too well were her tone and her thick, moist, scowling lips that repelled me. She feared being trapped there in her squalor, alone at the start of her descent into nearly every complication of type 2 diabetes.
I looked around the kitchen. The sink was barely visible beneath the greasy, filth and mold-caked, pots, pans, and dishes, which sprawled out from the sink, covering the adjacent flat surfaces, stove and all. Flies hummed around the foul sink, their specks covering the overhead light, the blinds, and any place light enough to show them. The floor was thickly matted with trash, except for the tiny spot under her chair, where it thinned from her nightly occupancy and the shuffling of her feet.
I watched Mom lancet her finger and milk a drop of blood onto a test strip. I looked at the smoke film coating our white walls. In places, the coating pissed drips down the wall. I was ill with an encroaching sense of the house opening its detachable jaws to consume me.
I was about to talk back to her in unleashed, fury. I was cut off by the glucometer smashing apart against the pantry door inches from my face. I looked her in the eye for a moment, and she saw something that scared her. It took effort for her to break my stare.
“That better still work. You find every piece, you ungrateful bitch. I need it.”
On my knees in the trash, dampness soaking through the layers of tights I still wore beneath my skating dress. Hateful words labored beneath my thin, tight lips. I vibrated with their effort. I wondered, as I often did, at peoples’ unconditional love for their mothers, which others seemed to experience. Mom told me, many times, that from less than three-months-old, I refused her breast and preferred not to be held by her.
I dug all the pieces of the glucometer from the discernible trash on the floor where it fell.
Mom went to bed around two a.m. after a dose of insulin and the angel food cake were gone.
I filled garbage bags with heaps of trash using a dust pan as a shovel. Once I could hear her red wood-sawing snoring near four a.m., I went to my room and packed. My room was not full of trash. It was full of my things; there were clothes, books, and CDs, thickly carpeting the floor.
I packed a milk crate full of journals and a couple of suitcases with clothes, Floppy, my stuffed bunny, and the studded leather treasure chest, jewelry box that was my grandfather’s and still held a one inch square youthful black and white of my grandmother, Rita. I tried to push aside the idea of a conversation with my still fire-haired, steel-willed, Riri. How would I explain my desertion of her daughter? I zipped my bags and stashed them, and the crate of writing, beneath the mess.
The next morning, I woke hours before my mother and left for school. I was not going to let her manipulate me into staying home. I had a plan. I had spoken to my best friend, Jamie’s parents a few nights previous about what the staff at the art school said – “Your mother is not your responsibility.” I could tell Jamie’s mom doubted the severity of what I described to her, but Jamie loved me like a sister. Jamie had suffered from intractable epilepsy since we were in 6th grade together. They would do anything to make her happy, including taking in strays, whom Jamie easily befriended. I was their last stray.
I got to my high school, Amity, in time for homeroom, a tiny miracle in itself. I nervously sat through English and History. When my free period came, I headed straight for my guidance counselor, a trusted ally.
Ms. W. was young and down to earth with the type of the last name that butts a whole bunch of consonants together without the roll of vowels between them. She reminded me of the older girls from the skating rink who had been surrogate sisters to me when I was very young. Ms. W was fit and fair-skinned and haired with eyes the blue of a late afternoon sky. The glasses framing them served to make her more relatable to me.
Girls scared the hell out of me – hell, they still do – their kindness at times a veil for closed-door cruelty, their judgment a keen-edged scythe.
I was not wary of Ms. W. she was easy to talk to and relate with. She did not mock my goals even though she paid close attention to my grades and absenteeism. She was also the one, who was so excited to tell me when the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) accepted me to their writing program the previous spring.
Ms. W saw me outside her office door. She was wrapping up with another student. When she saw my face, she ushered her student out the door and, stepping aside, invited me in. Usually, I slouched into a padded chair next to her desk, swinging my over-laden backpack down under my chair. On that day, I couldn’t sit. I had kept myself pegged down all morning.
“I’m leaving. I’m doing it today.” I hadn’t even taken my bag off my back. It kept sliding down my grandfather’s plush, aubergine, Lacoste shirt I had been wearing since I started attending ECA.
Ms. W. had a loose understanding of my life, knew I was forced to skate, knew my sister left because of Mom. She met her at meetings about my truancy and poor performance. She had seen us interact and heard Mom’s slow, depressed diatribes on the many ways I was ruining her life and my own.
I confessed some darker truths. I could tell she wished I had been honest sooner. I explained my plan to leave without my mother finding out. Ms. W. wanted to make sure I had a place to go, that I would be safe until she saw me the next day. I think she even contacted Jamie’s parents, I can’t remember. What I do remember is without her consistent support I might not have completed high school, and I definitely would not have gotten into all seven colleges to which I applied.
I had another class period before I could get into my car and get my plan under way. I left the office and saw a crowd headed for the gym following Red Cross signs. That is when I remembered that I signed up for the blood drive.
The blood drive was popular for those of us old enough to donate. It was a reason to miss class, get free snacks and drinks, and proudly wear a sticker for the rest of the day to highlight our superior status. My long sleeves were tight to roll up, but I bled my pint in 8 minutes.
A couple of years later, when I worked in a Boston hospital blood bank, I learned that separating pints of blood into components to make viable platelets, the pint must be collected in under ten minutes. I like to remember that on the day of my greatest struggle for survival, I donated blood, which may have helped three other people survive as well.
I felt a bit weak even after I ate a pack of Lorna Doones and some orange juice, but at least, it was time to leave. I had to get back to the house before Mom returned from her doctor appointment. I had to get into the house and get my bags. Not only did I not want to run into Mom, but I wanted to get to ECA down in New Haven on time as well. I packed the back of my boxy SUV and left as quickly as I had come. I felt heady but was unsure if the culprit was the missing pint of blood or the reality of what I was doing.
I wish I could recall more than just arriving at and leaving ECA that day. Most of my memories that afternoon surround colors; my purple shirt, my dark red blood draining into a bag below me, and later that night, the lights on the police cruiser illuminating my house and Mom’s face.
School finally ended at four p.m., and I was expected at the skating rink by five p.m. Instead of hopping on I-95 around the corner from ECA, I headed back through downtown traffic and crawled back up the hill, to Woodbridge, with the rest of the commuters. I got to Jamie’s house, unloaded my car, and waited for the rest of the plan to play out.
It did not take long for my mother to begin to worry, find out where I was and what I planned. She reported my car, which she owned, stolen, as well as the gas card, credit card, and the brick-sized cell phone she made me carry for safety.
I curled in a fetal position clutching my floppy bunny on the grass green family room carpet. Jamie’s father, Cedar, argued with my mom over the phone. He told me that my mother reported me to the police as a thief since she could not report an 18-year-old as a runaway.
He said that instead of waiting until the next day to return everything as I had planned, we had to go right then. The police would meet us there for my protection, as Cedar had insisted. “Wow, she’s nuts, kid. I don’t know how you have your head screwed on straight.”
The lights of the cruiser throbbed through my neighborhood in the flats of Woodbridge. I drove my first car for the last time and parked it in the driveway. Cedar followed in his car, parking in the street behind me.
The officer was familiar from around town. He faced me, his thick mustache hiding his expression as he listened to my mother on the stoop. She had just started using a cane, for neuropathy pain, or obesity, or whatever. She was making a show of it, trying to see if, due to her health, the officer would make me stay.
I walked up the steps listening to my dog barking inside the house and swallowed hard. I did not raise my eyes to Mom until she was directly in front of me. The officer watched.
“Get in the house.” I could hear the faintest restraint in her flat tone.
I put the pile of contraband in her hand. “No.” My voice matched my will. “I’m 18. I don’t have to listen to you. Not anymore.” I turned and started back down the steps, avoiding the urge to push past her and get my dalmatian as well.
“Is there anything we can work out here, ladies?” The officer’s attempt was feeble but well-intentioned.
I spoke as I continued leaving. “Her house is full of trash, Officer. That’s why she’s not letting you in. She also said I couldn’t go to school anymore, so I’m leaving.”
“You don’t seriously think I meant that?” Her voice was the sweet of rotting meat.
“I’m not waiting to find out.” I hopped into the passenger seat of Cedar’s car.
She was waving her cane in the air, forgetting to look more disabled than she was at that point. “The house is her mess, not mine. She makes me live like this. It’s all her….”
I slammed the car door. Mom had no one to blame anymore.
I continue to be grateful for the encouragement and readership of this growing community of readers and writers. I plan on adding some other types of writing to this site, eventually. I also hope to start posting more as my surgery recovery progresses, and it is progressing, slowly and painfully.
It is beginning to feel like this blog could become the bones of a full-length memoir. I keep seeing new places to take it. I am reading and working with Natalie Goldberg’s “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.” I wouldn’t be surprised to get many posts out of the exercises in this book. I highly recommend it, if you are at all considering writing a memoir.
***Less than 10% of the eligible population donates blood. As a result, there are always nationwide blood shortages. Please donate. Contact your local hospital donor room or find your nearest Red Cross drive.
This writing is a memoir and by nature is based on fallible memories. The reader should not consider this writing to represent anything but the memories of the author.