A Blurry, Boozy Mess

“Should I go get him and bring him back?” I asked the group assembled around my sister’s patio table in her backyard.

We were days into my trip to Michigan and it had been a mostly tense experience.  The kids were having a blast being all together, but my sister and my brother were trading jabs so often that sometimes I felt like ducking my head as they flew across the room.  I’d responded to the tension by stocking up on alcohol and my father did the same.  This had the desired effect of relaxing us, but also had the unwanted effect of loosening our tongues.

Since I didn’t see my brother and sister more than once a year for the most part, it meant that we hardly ever progressed in our relationships.  We always fell back into the same old comfortable routines; my sister would complain about my brother to me and tell me stories about his latest bout of irresponsibility.  I would either become peacemaker or co conspirator.  My brother would respond with his trademark biting sarcasm, and I would respond in either of my two usual ways with him as well.

But throwing my father into the mix was putting lighter fluid on the already smoldering family dynamic.  And this evening, we’d sat around my sister’s table trading unsavory family stories.  These were the hard ones, the ones that my kids didn’t even really know about because they were so awful and so personal; their eyes grew wide as the stories rolled off our alcohol sweetened tongues.  It was finally too much; my brother stormed away from the table and into the house to sulk.

“I don’t care if you go get him,” my sister answered.  “He gave as good as he got.  He just is mad that the stories are true and he looks bad in them.”  She was right of course; my brother was very good at applying a double standard to his own and other people’s behaviors.

“Let him be,” my father agreed, taking another sip of his whisky.

“I can’t,” I responded, the peacemaker coming out.  “We’re here five days, and I don’t want one of them to be ruined by this kind of ridiculous childishness.”

I went after him into the house, all ready to smooth things over.

“Get out of here,” my brother growled at me.  “You owe me an apology for what you said out there.”

I mentally replayed the conversation in my head.  “Don’t be like this,” I said, trying not to engage.  “You know it’s all talk out there.  Just come back out and try not to let your anger get the best of you.”

“No way.  You guys are all making me look bad in front of Dad.”

Ah, there it was.  And before I knew what I was saying, the words came out of my mouth:  “Well, you are doing a great enough job on that all on your own without any help from us.”

I could see the red rise in my brother’s face.  “I’m not going out there until you and our sister give me an apology.”

“Well, you’re not going to get it,” I answered evenly.  “We’re telling the truth out there, and sometimes the truth hurts.  If anything, you owe us an apology for the fact that these stories even exist.”

He glared at me.  “I have made up for my past mistakes a long time ago.”

I swallowed hard.  “You will never, ever be able to make up for your past mistakes.”  A million images of our angry life in the ruins of my parents’ divorce flashed in front of my eyes.   When he’d hit me.  When he’d stolen from me.  When we’d locked up our possessions in padlocked bedrooms.  When he’d tried to break down my bedroom door.  When I’d had to be sent away because his shrinks told my mother he’d probably hurt me if he was left alone with me.  It was a buzzy, blurry mess in my head.  I started recounting these memories out loud, one by one, until I was screaming so loud my throat hurt.  “You can never fix what you broke in me!”  I yelled so loudly that the entire neighborhood must have heard.

My brother walked out of the room and I crumpled onto the floor in tears.  How could I have possibly thought coming here would be anything but a disaster?

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The Road Paved With Envy

“What are the kids doing upstairs?”  I asked my sister as she settled on the sofa next to me.

“Does it matter?  They’re quiet and not bugging us.”  She laughed and handed me a glass of iced tea to sip on while we watched television.

It was Spring Break and my sister had piled her children into their minivan and made the trek south to see us in Ohio.  Even though we’d lived here for nearly three years at this point, this marked the first time she’d ever come down without her husband to stay for more than just a weekend.

My sister and I had, for all intents and purposes, a good relationship.  Whatever tension there was between us I felt sure was all on my side, due to my crazy competitive nature.  I harbored plenty of secret jealousy of her stable life, her ability to go out and buy what she wanted when she wanted, and all of the spoils she had to show for that.  Her kids had new movies on the day they were released, the latest and greatest video games for their Nintendo game consoles.  When I had scraped money together to get Zach his first Gameboy years ago, her kids had already put their old Gameboys aside for the new color version.  She’d bought two new cars in quick succession after my mother’s passing, and for all of that, my sister had worked a job outside the home since before she had married her husband.

It was hard to watch it all while we were still struggling to pay our two car payments and our mortgage on R’s salary and my small teaching stipend.  We’d bought as much house as we could afford, and while I loved our rambling colonial, it certainly did leave a sour taste in my mouth when R called home some months on the 21st or the 23rd and instructed me to not visit the ATM until the first of the month.  I was 32 years old now;  I was ready for life to not be so hard.

“It’s so nice to be able to have them go upstairs and hang out in Zach’s room,” my sister said.  “Our kids’ rooms are so small they can’t even all fit in together at the same time.”  Wait, what?  Was that something akin to envy on my sister’s part?

“But you have that great room in your basement for the kids to hang out in.”  I remembered it well.  It had the most enormous big screen TV in it, with stacks and stacks of DVDs and videos for the kids to watch.  When I visited my sister, we hardly ever saw the kids.

“Yeah, but you could do that here too, now that you’ve finished your basement.”   It almost felt like a game, this conversation, a tit for tat of who had what and whose was better…except each was thinking the other had it better.  What an odd thought, to think that my older sister might be harboring some of the same envy I had always felt.

“True, but R is using it as his office for now.”  I glanced at the clock.  It was after 8.

“When will your husband be gracing us with his presence?”  My sister asked, also noting the time.

“Oh, who knows,” I answered.  “It’s the end of the quarter.  Each time it rolls around his hours seem to get later, and later.  I don’t expect him before ten or eleven all week.”

“Wow, that sounds like my husband when he has an extra job at work.”

“Well that’s the frustrating thing,” I responded.  “At least when hour husband works late there is extra pay to reward all of you for the sacrifice.  When my husband works late, all it means is the same paycheck at the end of the pay period because he’s on salary.  Meanwhile, we’re all on our own here.”

For once my sister didn’t respond with how her situation was worse than my own.  “Yeah, that does suck,” she answered.  “At least though, he isn’t here to harass us about what we want to watch on TV.”

And with that, we pulled up HBO to find the chickiest chick flick we could find, not wanting to go any further down the road paved with envy.

Far Away Thanks

“Here you go,” R said, handing me the steaming mug of coffee.  I was sitting on the sofa in R’s apartment watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  Z huddled under the blanket on the loveseat next to us.

“Thanks,” I said, looking up at him as he sat down next to me.  “Do you know, this is probably the first time you’ve ever brought me a cup of coffee?”

“No,” said R, incredulous.

I nodded, but smiled.  It was true.  R had been more attentive, more kind, more focused on me and Z than I had probably ever seen him since our phone conversation several weeks ago.  And if I was being honest, I was more appreciative of the efforts than I had been in the past.

We had hesitantly started talking again after that late night phone call from Vegas, each of us slowly and carefully sharing small, safe pieces of ourselves and our experiences since we’d been apart.  R had suggested spending Thanksgiving together, just the three of us, in Wisconsin at his apartment.  He thought it would give us a chance to spend some time together without the distractions of our families and obligations.  I agreed it might be a good idea, and so we booked airfare for both Z and myself.

I’d flown in after work on Wednesday, arriving late with Z.  We’d both fallen asleep in the car on the hour long drive to R’s apartment north of Milwaukee.  After tucking Z in the second bedroom, R and I quietly and sleepily talked in hushed tones about what it was like to see each other again.  I complimented him on his apartment, his recent weight loss and his calm demeanor.  He told me that he thought Z was doing well considering all of the upheaval of the last year, and marveled at how different my experience at my new job was from the ones I’d had when we’d been together.  We fell asleep together in the wee hours of the morning holding hands and feeling a contentedness that neither one of us could hardly even remember feeling before.

Thanksgiving morning was relaxed and calm.  Without either extended family with us, there was no cooking to do, nothing to clean, no where to rush to.  We all slept in and hit the couch in our PJs.   Z and R played checkers or Uno while I read a book about the Titanic sinking (having just seen the movie not long before).

Before I might have hammered on the fact that R had never made me coffee before, or agreed to try my great aunt’s broccoli casserole, or been OK with me and my crazy “no red meat” phase I’d been trying out to lose weight.  I might have been just as judgemental in R’s positive behavior by putting it in the context of how much it contrasted with his past negative behavior.  But in this moment, rather than thinking of all that we’d done wrong before, all of the horrible things we’d said and done to each other, I just breathed in the moment.  I felt good.  Content.  Happy.  And I wanted it to continue, for longer than just this weekend, this day, this moment.

“Thank you for bringing me coffee,” I said quietly, using the hand that wasn’t holding the mug to squeeze R’s.

R smiled at me.  “Happy Thanksgiving.  I think we have a lot to be thankful for.”

I nodded, my eyes searching his for affirmation.  “Yes, I think we do.”

Wedding

Things I Remember About My Wedding Day, 12/96:

I loved my hair, although with my roots my hair looked brown in all of the photos

I wish someone had told me about eyebrow waxing

No one was paying attention to my sister’s kids while we got ready upstairs, so her daughter never ate that day.  She threw up later as a result.

I wished my Dad didn’t wear his glasses in the photos (a lot of this is sounding petty)

I smiled the whole way down the aisle.  My sister cried and I always thought that was silly; you should be happy on your wedding day.  I loved looking out on everyone I loved as I walked and focused on that.

Our priest made a huge faux pas in the homily.  He was trying to be funny,  talking about pleasing the in laws, and I could see it coming well before he said it.  He said something about me and my mother in law, and then… something about R trying to please HIS mother in law.  It would have been a crowd pleaser had my mother had been alive; I’m sure he had used the line before.  I remember vividly forcing myself to keep a mask of serenity on my face, but I was furious.  An audible gasp went up from my side of the church when it happened.   It made the ceremony feel like he didn’t know us at all.

I got very choked up during the vows, and my portion were not audible to anyone but the priest and R.  I was full of emotion, on so many levels.  I hate that at other people’s weddings, so I was disappointed when it happened to me.  I should have practiced or something.

I loved the part of the ceremony where we gave flowers to the statue of Mary.   It was a nice break from being on display to the audience; we faced the congregation for most of the ceremony.

We went through the McDonald’s drive thru for the aforementioned niece after the ceremony.

My father had given an amazing speech at my sister’s wedding, and I expected something similar at my own.  I remembered it well; he’d started with a quote from Les Miserables.  Since my father and I shared a love of Broadway musicals, I expected some similar epiphany with a great quote at my own.  His speech was instead very predictable, generic and totally unlike him.  It struck me as odd.

My uncle, my mother’s brother (the one my mother waited to see before her death), gave a very beautiful speech on her behalf.  It was very touching; we are not very close, so it was a beautiful surprise.

My father in law, too, gave a very moving speech.  He talked about how the family was not only gaining a daughter in law, but a “bonus” with Zach.  My whole family was impressed and many of them were crying.

R and I were expected to speak, but again, I found myself speechless.  R made a comment too about “our new family” which was very nice.  At that point I was nervous about R’s family, which greatly outnumbered my own.  They were glamourous, European and I felt completely out of place in their midst, even at my own wedding.

My sister cried like a baby during the Father Daughter dance.  I did a bit too, so did he, but my sister was off the charts.  Everyone was talking about it.

The DJ played the wrong Celine Dion song, but I didn’t tell anyone that I was upset about it.  The one I had wanted, “The Way You Loved Me” reminded me of my mother, and that was really why I had asked for it.

The food and desserts were beautiful, except the tables for the wedding cake were not level.  This gave the cake a decided lilt, which we all watched all night to see if the cake collapsed.  It did not.

R surprised me at the end of the evening by having booked a hotel suite for us. We had originally thought to just go back home, where Z and my father would also be.  We weren’t leaving on our honeymoon for a week, to take advantage of my scheduled break at school, so after the wedding, it was back to Real Life.  I had been kind of irritated by the plan, but went along with it because it had seemed practical.   It was a perfect surprise, even though I normally hate surprises.

And after all of that, I was married.

The Notebook

“Now where is that damn notebook?”  I muttered to myself, frustrated.

I was in what had been serving as Dawn and her children’s bedroom, formerly Zach’s bedroom.  She’d been with me for the better part of a month, and my nerves were starting to fray.  I’d been happy to welcome her and her two children into my home after she started having trouble with her husband, and for the first week or two, things were fantastic.  I’d come home to find the house cleaned, the dinner made and the groceries supplemented by Dawn.  Dawn was going to school but wasn’t in classes this term, so she had her days free to watch the children and be my housewife.

But it didn’t take long for little things to start to bother me.   Her children, who didn’t have to go to daycare at the crack of dawn like mine, would stay up late and keep my son awake.  Or Dawn would spend too much time on the phone with this friend or that friend, running up my long distance bill.   She would use my computer and fire up my new “America Online” at all hours, meeting strangers and giving them my home phone number.  I was starting to get that “in the tunnel” feeling about the whole situation, and had wondered aloud when Dawn would be finding a place more permanent than my spare bedroom.

Which is why I was blissfully alone in the house today, save Zachary.  Dawn’s husband had taken her children for the weekend, and she was out looking at apartments that would take public funding.   She had called, asking me to find the notebook with the address of the place she was looking at today; she must have written it down wrong on her slip of paper because there was no such address on the street she’d just looked at.   She was standing at a pay phone, waiting for me to return her call while I found it.

She thought she might have left it on her dresser, but I couldn’t find it anywhere.  She said if it wasn’t there to try the top drawer, so I started digging.  Sure enough, there was the notebook.  Where was the number?  I started flipping through pages upon pages of handwritten words, stories and doodles; a name popped out at me:  “RAY”.  My heart skipped a beat.  Was Dawn writing about me and Ray without telling me?  I looked to the sentence:  “And so Ray strummed his guitar, looking intently at the strings as if they would take away the tension between us.”

I nearly dropped the notebook, and had completely forgotten the task at hand.

Before I could go any further, I made myself find the number and call Dawn back; she was waiting.  I read off the address to her breathlessly, hearing her curse as she realized she was a good two miles away from the right address.  She thanked me and I quickly returned to the notebook as I hung up the phone.

“And while my best friend slept upstairs, I found myself unzipping her ex fiance’s pants, eager and willing to give him what she would not.”

I must have gasped too loudly because I could hear Zachary in the next room.  “Mommy, is everything all right?”

“S-s-sure, honey, everything is…fine…” I trailed off as my eyes transfixed themselves to the page.  I continued to read the marvelously detailed story of how two weeks ago, when Ray had spent the night after his guest speaking stint at my school, he and Dawn had fooled around on my living room floor while I went to bed early to make sure I would be on my game at school.

I shouldn’t be upset at this, I told myself.  I mean, after all, I wasn’t dating Ray anymore.  He wasn’t my fiance any more.  Truth be told, he was separated from his wife and she was the person with legitimate claim to Pissed Offness.   But somehow, I still felt like both of them had thrown away a piece of the trust I’d given them.   Dawn had been my best friend all during high school and college when I’d dated Ray; she knew first hand how tortured my feelings had been for him.  She’d been the one who had encouraged me to call him after he’d left me for weeks on end with an engagement ring but no contact.  Of any person on Earth, it was Dawn who should have known that I would be conflicted to hear about him with anyone, much less my best friend.  Who was also married, but separated.  And living with me.

I reread the short story one more time and then tucked the notebook back in Dawn’s dresser.   She would realize, later, that she’d sent me to find that story.  Maybe she already did; maybe this was her way of telling me without having to do it face to face.

I didn’t know what to think, or say, or feel.    I only knew one thing for sure:  I felt betrayed, whether I had a right to or not.

Houseguests

“Of course you can come over,” I told Dawn on the phone.  “I’ll set up the Pack and Play in Zach’s room and put him in his old bedroom.   You and A can sleep together in the bed, it won’t be any problem.  I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

I glanced at the phone as I hung up the receiver; ten forty at night.  It was sheer luck that I was even awake at this point, but it was Saturday night and I had gotten into watching a movie on TV.  I dug myself out of the blanket I’d been wrapped in and started up the stairs to make Z’s room ready for Dawn and her children.

Dawn and Todd had married five years ago, not long after receiving the news that she was pregnant with their child.  They had been away at college, living together in an off campus apartment.  I’d always marveled at how they had seemingly made their situation work; they had slipped into marriage as easily as a warm winter coat.   After a year in student housing though, they had moved back home to be nearer to family and friends who could help with the baby while they both continued their educations.

Their basement apartment in his parents’ house had been an object of envy for me while I lived at home with my mother.  Its separation, its size, its privacy had always made it seem like such an ideal arrangement.   But as the years wore on, Todd dropped out of school and started working for his father, making the web of interconnectedness even tighter with Dawn’s in laws.  She started talking with exasperation about her mother in law, and by the time Dawn’s second child was born last November, Dawn’s patience had worn thin.  Todd refused to talk to his parents about Dawn’s complaints; instead, he’d simply taken on a second job to put money away for their eventual apartment.

It was at this second job, she told me, where he’d met Sandi.   He had started staying out for drinks after work with the group, and has he retold Dawn about his evenings, the name was a constant in every story.   Her resentment boiled white hot as she stayed at his parents’ house with her two small children while he stayed out later and later spending the money he was making at the bar.   It had all come to a head this evening, she’d told me on the phone earlier, when she accused him of an affair with this Sandi.  Todd, unfortunately, had not been at all effective in his denials.  By the time the smoke cleared, he had admitted to kissing the woman and seeing her alone outside of the group of colleagues.

I stopped in front of Zach’s old bedroom door, and turned to the right.  I’d nearly gone into his old room first, until I remembered that he now slept in what used to be my mother’s old bedroom.  I’d moved her double bed into my bedroom, being unable to actually move into her larger bedroom.   Zach now slept in the twin bed I’d always used as a teen, in my mother’s old room.  Tonight, I’d move him back to his old space and give over the room to Dawn and her two children.   I wasn’t sure how long they’d be here;  would she and her husband patch this all up in a few days, or was my home a mile marker on the road to a new destination?

As I tucked Z’s sleeping form into his old bed, I marveled at how quickly things could change.  A year ago I’d admired Dawn and her husband, always looking at them and wondering if I’d made the right choice all of those years ago when I told Joe no, I wouldn’t marry him just because I was pregnant.  They’d always given me a pang of regret when I saw how easy it was between them.  But now, as I looked at Zachary’s cherubian innocence in his sleep, I was grateful that he had been spared the angry words and harsh separations that lay ahead for Dawn’s two young children.

I closed the door and went to answer the knock I could already hear coming from my front door.

Sixteen Versus Thirty Eight

“I can’t believe that’s all the kids you have in your classroom.”  I was standing in jaw dropping awe at my cousin’s classroom just outside of Washington D.C., in Virginia.

After visiting the beach with my father’s family, I drove two hours south to visit my mother’s cousin in Virginia.  Amazingly, she was just finishing up school due to a slew of snow days in the previous winter.  Jane had grown up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so she laughed right along with the rest of us hardy Michiganders at the toll a few flakes took on the DC Metro area.

Jane had gone back to school while I was in college to get her teacher’s certification.  She had originally worked as a lobbyist in the DC area, and then had met and married her husband.   He took her back home to the Midwest to start a family, only to move them all back to DC when he got a job with the Reagan administration.  My great aunt had moved in with her daughter after the passing of my great uncle.   My mother had always been especially close with my great aunt, and therefore by proxy, her cousin.

Ironically, Jane had finished her degree in elementary education, and even though she was twenty years older than me, we had both started our first year of teaching together last fall.  We were both teaching first grade.  Jane’s position was at a school with a high minority population in a less affluent area of the metro area.  My position had been in a transitional neighborhood in an urban environment.  I had thought, initially, that our experiences would be very similar and that we would trade endless war stories during my visit.

“Yes, I really have sixteen students,” she answered my question.  “The program is a pilot program here  called ‘sixteen to one’.  They are working to see if lower class sizes make a difference in outcomes for lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”

“Do you need a study to figure that out?  I can tell you the answer to that.  I had thirty eight kids in my classroom this year.  It’s simple math.  Your kids got more than double of your time and attention than mine did.”  I was in awe not only of how few desks there were in her room, but in what good repair the room was, and the amount of supplies I saw available.

“I know,” Jane answered me.  “The reason they’re able to do something like this is because there are more affluent areas in this district.  It’s a huge district, so you can take all of that money, pool it, and spread it around to where the needs are.”

“It just makes so much sense.”  In our area, the affluent areas were in different school districts, so the urban system I worked in had very limited resources with which to educate its students.  There was no Peter to pay Paul in my school district.

I looked down at the pile of work half completed on one student’s desk.  “Is this where your kids are in math?” I asked.  The students were doing double digit addition; my students hadn’t gotten much past adding with sixes and sevens.

“Yes, that’s where they are.  Your students didn’t make it that far?”

“Not even close.  Every time I went to teach math, I’d have to stop fifty times to get Ricardo back on task, or stop Derrick from playing with DeShante’s braids, or any number of issues.  It was like crowd control more than anything else.”

“That’s a shame.  I can’t even really imagine what that’s like.”

“It was hard.  It was  like trying to teach with both hands behind your back.  The kids have greater needs, but they give you more of them and less everything to do it with.  And then they wonder why urban schools are doing so much worse.  It’s so unfair.”

Jane looked around her room.  “I have tons of left over supplies.  We never run out of anything.  If you want, why don’t you take all of my leftovers.  You’re driving home anyway, so you have room.  I will be able to get more of everything at the beginning of the year; no one will ever know.”

“Really?”  I looked around at the bevy of Tempera paint bottles, reams of construction paper and buckets of paintbrushes and half used crayons.  I felt like the homeless guy outside of the fancy restaurant ready to do a dumpster dive.  I was salivating at the thought.

“Sure,” Jane said.  “Let’s call it my contribution towards more equitable educational outcomes.”

As I’d said to Zach a million times, “Life is unfair.  Get used to it.”  But somehow, I still couldn’t get over injustice when it stared me so obviously in the face.

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