She moved away from the curtain for the hundredth time that evening, having checked the driveway to see if my long overdue, undoubtedly drunk father had returned.
“I can’t believe alcohol is stronger than love,” was her resigned, almost-sequitur to my impassioned inquiry as to why she didn’t leave him.
“I can’t believe alcohol is stronger than love.” She repeated the statement with a righteous yet zombie-like stubbornness that never ceased to inspire massive confusion in my child heart.
At twelve I adored her and desperately needed to trust a mother. At twelve, however, I was still sane enough not to embrace her masochistic philosophy of “love”. At twelve I still retained a degree of emotional sobriety in terms of the merry-go-round of misery of an alcoholic home. It was only a matter of time until the pain would wash away my frame of reference, too, in terms of healthy living, let alone loving. I would ultimately become as masochistic and pain-oriented as she.
But then I sat there. Simply confused. Straining so hard to understand and to help. Part of me admittedly enjoyed the excitement and the privilege. My bedtime was long past, but once again, due to the extenuating circumstance of my father’s drinking binge, I was promoted to confidante. My mother required an audience — a shock absorber — for her alarm.
I was a passenger on her roller coaster of emotions. The spectacle of her filled the living room. The wringing of hands and wailing. The foot-stomping fury. The panic. She’d turn on the radio to hear if there had been an accident. Every car on the street pulled her to the curtain once again. My father usually didn’t come home on those nights until the early hours of the morning, but her ritual sustained its intensity all evening.
Perhaps these exhausting exercises were her way of playing out the pain or dealing with the suspense. Perhaps they were a way of revving herself up for the verbal, near physical combat that would happen upon his arrival.
She would entertain me with a rendition of possible ways he would get killed before daybreak. If a siren were heard in the distance, she would look at me knowingly. Sometimes, she’d send me to bed and sit up clutching her rosary, entranced in the whispering, as if that alone were the thread keeping him alive. I’d be in bed, unable to sleep — too aware of him out there in the mysterious dark and her on the couch in the living room in feverish prayerfulness.
Usually, though, I would get to simply sit there, awe-filled at the impressive display of vitality of my so often depressed and exhausted mother — the adrenaline coursing through her body. And I, so vulnerable in my loyalty, was sucked into her swirling hysteria. Feeling her pain — her anger — her fear.
Save one difference in us. I wish today I could go back to that poor, pajamaed girl sitting on the edge of the couch in wide-eyed horror, harboring the guilty hope that this time her father wouldn’t come home. This time he would die and then they’d all be left in peace.
I’d like to save that little girl all the guilt, self-hate and future heartache from such trauma. To tell her that it was a normal, appropriate response not to want a crazed being, deranged by alcohol and too-long repressed anger, to enter the house and terrorize them all. A stranger who could change her mother into a scary stranger, matching his fiery raging with her icy vindictiveness. In a home where the children were changed, too, into hypervigilant hostages of the marital war.
Miraculously, however, her father always did manage to come home. More or less in one piece.
We would hear it. The car in the driveway. His cursing as he slammed the door.
And my mother would pull back from the curtain — for somehow he must not see she’d spent the evening there. Even though he’d probably know, as she’d want him to know.
If I were still up she’d send me scurrying to bed. If I were already in bed, I’d be awake, struggling to listen beyond the pounding in my ears — paralyzed with anticipation of the upcoming scene for, by that point, I had completely merged with that poor pathetic woman sitting stoically on the couch with her knitting, rosary beads or newspaper. Feigning detachment. Assuming the stance, justifiably as far as I could see, of an injured party. At the same time, girding herself for the inevitable attack.
My father erupted into the front hallway, slamming the door. Then came a terrifying eternity of silence as he stood crookedly, rallying a wobbly body and a dizzied brain — struggling to assess the situation. Sensing through the drunken fog, her presence in the living room. The guilt and dread her presence inspired made the fire of his rage begin to roar.
I listened with my whole body. My lungs would ache from not breathing so long. I had to hear. Had to will my support for her. Indulging in a breath seemed an abandonment of my mother.
He would start. He would curse something or other — trying to provoke her. Trying to show her and all the rest of them, the long parade of people in his miserable past, that he really didn’t give a damn. That he wasn’t going to put up with any more crap. The speech slurred. The body menacing. I could see the hulking shadow on the wall from my bedroom.
She would knit. Not look at him. Ostentatiously ignore him. Soon, ceremoniously, she would begin collecting her things to go to bed. Supercilious and silent, save for the sniping which would slowly but inevitably come. When he finally paused in his brutal and sloppy rantings, she would say it. That one sentence, caustic and concise – but with a point that never missed. Right to the jugular. God, she was good. Amazing.
And he would be off again. In an even more murderous fury. It was orgasmic, the levels of rage and acrimony they achieved in those first minutes of his homecoming. I’d lie there wondering if this were the night he’d kill her. They’d kill each other. We’d all be killed. A fitting climax to the horror of it all.