July 23, 2008

I heard metal scratching against metal, the turn of the key at the front door. My room was dark and I was awake. The two sleeping pills I took an hour earlier had not yet taken effect. I reached for my cell phone. My glasses were in the bathroom, I remembered, so I had to squint to make out the numbers: 2:30 a.m. Teenaged daughters should be sneaking into the house at 2:30 a.m., I thought, not 49-year-old mothers of five.

Footsteps up the stairs in the entrance hallway. It was definitely my mom. Everyone else in the family was home. I had made sure of this before lying down to wait for sleep. Three brothers in two bedrooms, one sister in another, Dad in the master. The only one missing was her.

Three hours earlier there had been an argument. My sister and I had been out together shopping for summer dresses. The weather in Southern California was sweltering and I was tired of the one pair of denim shorts and one sleeveless dress I owned. After spending a year living in New York, my wardrobe had been whittled down from tank tops and bathing suits to wool socks, thick sweaters and overcoats.

On our way home from the outing, my sister mentioned grabbing take-out from our favorite Japanese teppan restaurant. My recent change in state and climate had driven me to begin a stringent diet consisting daily of low-fat string cheese, nectarines and buttered popcorn flavored rice cakes, but I told her I would drive her by the restaurant to pick up some shrimp fried rice.

We arrived home. My brothers were in the living room, entranced by a pathetically simple Nickelodeon television show. My mother was in the kitchen checking on brownies in the oven.

We went into the kitchen, me to look for a can of Sunkist and my sister to eat her rice.

My mom saw the food and said, “Where is that from?”

“Sakai’s,” my sister said. The tone of my mother’s voice suggested that this was not going to be a pleasant exchange.

“Isn’t that nice,” she sneered. “Guess what we had for dinner.”

My sister had begun eating her food. Her mouth was full.

“What?” I asked reluctantly. I knew from experience that refusing to play her game was worse than going along with it.

“Bagel Bites,” she said. “Flipping Bagel Bites.” My mother never said the word “fucking.” It was always “flipping.” This, I guess, to prevent my brothers, all under the age of eleven, from developing dirty mouths. But this was fatuous logic. She never said “fuck,” but she said everything else. She even got creative, combining several cuss words and stringing them into long, run-on insults.

At the mention of Bagel Bites, frozen bite-sized pizzas on mini bagels, my stomach rumbled. It had already digested the string cheese, I thought, and is mad at me for starving.

“That sounds good,” I said, not joking.

“I bet it does.” This was typical. As her anger mounted, my mother spoke in short statements aimed at deriding the listener. “It’s great that you get to eat Sakai’s while everyone else had Bagel Bites.”

Though my brothers weren’t paying attention to anything but the T.V., my sister asked if any of them wanted some rice. They shook their heads. “See,” she said. “They don’t want it anyway.”

“Of course they do,” my mother said. “And so do I. You think I wanted to have frozen pizza for dinner?”

“I don’t know,” my sister said.

“For a college student, you don’t seem to know much,” said my mom. “No, I didn’t want flipping frozen pizza for dinner.”

“You can have some,” I offered, sure that my sister didn’t mind.

“You think you’re so much better than me,” my mom said. “Both of you.”

In fact, she was right. I did think I was better than her, at least at controlling my anger when it emerged and directing it at the correct source. I was sure that some fight had happened before my sister and I got home that precipitated this exchange, yet we were getting punished for it.

“Why don’t you go to hell,” said my mother. “I don’t need your stupid rice.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Do you know how hard it is to have a family?” she asked. “To have a mortgage bill? To spend your money buying shit for everyone else?”

“No,” my sister said.

“No is right,” said my mom, leaving the room.

She had left her glass on the counter. When she was out of the kitchen, I lifted it to my nose. She had been downing a vodka tonic like it was water.

My sister shrugged as if to say, “Well, what did we expect?” I nodded.

“I’m sick of this flipping life,” my mom said, coming back into the kitchen. She had her red patent leather purse from QVC over her shoulder, the one she invariably got complimented on by ladies over 60 whenever she left the house. She set the purse on the counter and began to dig through it. “Everything is shitty.”

Now I could tell that she was drunk. Before, I had only wondered. Her querulous nature made it impossible to know at any given time if she was truly upset over something or whether she was vodka-upset over something.

She found her keychain. “I hope you have a good time eating your fancy food,” she said. “I’m leaving.”

“No, you’re not,” I said. The second part of this sentence I did not voice went, “Because you’re drunk and can’t drive.”

My mom ignored me. She left the kitchen and I heard the front door open. “The brownies are probably burned,” she said, and then she was gone.

I don’t know where she went. I never know where she goes. My feeling is that she just drives. Hopefully she parks. Sober she’s a bad driver. I don’t want to think about how much worse she is under the influence.

What I do know is that she’s home now, at 2:30 a.m., treading lightly, as far as I can tell, up the staircase to her bedroom, where my dad is probably fast asleep, not worried about where she’s been, maybe even hoping that she never comes back.

I can’t say that thought hasn’t crossed my mind.


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