I started 1979 with high hopes of the year going better. That was until March when barely a month past my seventeenth birthday, I wrecked Christine’s new car. An orange 1972 Ford Maverick with a large black stripe and leather patterned vinyl top, the car was a head turner and I felt cool driving it. Especially after being stuck with Mom’s ’62 Valiant while for my driver’s permit. Dad had bought the Maverick for Christine the prior year for her birthday. We were all surprised when he drove up with the car, especially after the last car he bought for Al. It was a 1962 Chevrolet Belair. A real grandma car. Al brought it home after working on it at a friend’s soon after Dad had given him the keys. Grandma car no longer, it sported fat racing slicks on the rear axle, suspension jacked so high you could hardly see out the rear window, and reverb sound (poor mans substitute for stereo in the early 70’s) blasting music from the radio. I thought it looked and sounded cool. Dad didn’t. He swore he’d never buy another car for his kids.
Dad was such a pushover.
I borrowed the Maverick one day to go to Patrick’s house. Wanting as much to be seen in it as to get to his house, I cruised Alki Beach driving ten miles per hour along Beach Drive, and then headed up through Fauntleroy to his house on the south side of West Seattle. Turning onto a side street off California Avenue, I didn’t see the car coming the other direction. All I remember was the sound of screeching tires and crunching sheet metal as the oncoming car plowed into the right front fender. The collision threw my upper body into the passenger seat with only the lap belt keeping me from flying out the open window. Extracting myself from the car, I stood outside staring at the collapsed front tire that was now shoved alarmingly far into the engine compartment. While I tried to comprehend what had happened, Patrick’s dad appeared at my side and put his arm around my shoulder.
“What happened here, son?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but I think it’s my fault,” I said looking up to him. “I didn’t see him coming.”
“Don’t admit anything,” he immediately scolded. “Keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking.”
I held out hope that the policeman would find the other driver at fault, but no such luck. The car was totaled and to say Dad was unhappy would be the understatement of the millennium. To add insult to injury, Dad bought Christine a 1971 AMC Gremlin as her replacement car. The Gremlin was a car that lived up to it’s name in every way. Prone to overheating in the summertime, the heater would have to be run at full blast to keep the engine cool which was barely tolerable until the window cranks broke with the windows in the closed position. When the temperature rose above seventy and the heat on high, I would bloody my palms on the jagged metal nub as I gasped for fresh air. The Gremlin became an omnipresent reminder to Christine of the multitude of injustices I had caused her throughout her life to that point. It is a testament to the notion of forgiveness and forgetting that we can laugh about it now.
Though, Karma does have play largely here. Later in college, I sold Christine my ’69 VW Beetle. It was the best car I’d ever owned. It had an auto stick shift, a transmission with an electro magnetic clutch. The fuse was shorted in the clutch so it could be started in gear. The unique transmission also gave it a few extra hundred pounds of weight over the rear wheels, which made it especially unstoppable in the snow. I made it to Mom’s house one Thanksgiving when she moved to the Toppenish reservation for a job. They had closed I-90 out of Ellensberg due to heavy snow, but I made it past the state patrol undetected and continued on to her house unfazed by the twelve inches of fresh snow on the road. A ’67 Austin Healey Sprite had caught my eye and I traded proven German engineering designed by none other than Ferdinand Porsche, for a chronically unreliable British piece-of-shit. I could have bought a bus pass and thrown the rest of my money in a fire and still have been money ahead.
Later in the spring, Mom and Dad announced they were separating. While their relationship had been rocky for a number of years, Mom endured Dad’s antics patiently while he dragged the family halfway across the globe. She focused her energy on caring for us while we were little, but when Yolanda began entering pre-teens Mom gave up on being the responsible one in the marriage. She enrolled in art school at Cornish College and spent most of her time there in the evenings. Dad surprised her one night at the studio, dropping in with all of us kids in tow. Mom introduced us to her fellow students and instructor, Charles Stokes. He nodded and stiffly shook hands with Dad, stoic and unfazed by the introduction. Mom averted her eyes and drew our attention to the various artworks in progress. Later that night, we could hear Mom and Dad arguing. Not long after the surprise visit, Mom and Dad announced they were separating.
“Your father and I need some time apart.”
“But why?” Yolanda asked as she cried.
“Honey, this is difficult to explain,” Mom said to her. “One day you will understand.”
Christine and I shared a sullen look as we listened, not saying a word.
“Were going to try this for now and get the family together with the counselor in a month,” Dad said, doing his best to sound hopeful.
That is all we got for an explanation and we were largely left to read between the lines in the half-finished sentences and distant stares as to why the marriage wasn’t working anymore. Regardless, our version of the American nuclear family was done. Fini. End of el story-o.
The thought captivated me of how something that lasted my whole lifetime could in a moment be over by simply stating so. I marveled and feared the simplicity of it, wondering what else in my life could be declared over by simply saying so. I don’t even recall Mom moving out. She was there one day, and the next day was gone.
Mom moved into an apartment on Capital Hill, enrolled in a psychology program at Antioch College and started to piece her life back together. Many years later I learned she’d had an affair with Stokes. I suppose if I’d known that at the time I would’ve blamed the split on the affair, but I know better now. Their marriage had been over for sometime. Mom endured for as long as she were capable, and then had to leave. Was there a more noble way to do it? I suppose. Yolanda bore the most burden of Mom’s abandonment. That is her story to tell in her time however, but suffice it is a topic as scary as the dark cellar stairs is to the child. We all have our own perception of it. And they are all true.
After the split, things went from bad to worse for Dad. His drinking became more pronounced, stumbling home late at night and leaving us largely to fend for ourselves. One day in the fall, he left after scribbling a quick note on the chalk board that hung on the kitchen wall outside my bedroom. The clunk of the board against the back of my closet woke me up. When I got out of bed to investigate, he was gone. The note read, “I am gone forever. I love you all.”
A day later, Christine received a call from the Medford Oregon Police Department indicating they had picked him up for drunk driving. They were looking for someone to pick him up and take him home. These were different times. There was no mandatory jail time or sentencing for drunk driving. Just a strong admonition and a ride home with someone who was sober so you could sleep it off. That wasn’t an option in our case. When Christine explained our situation, they drove him to Seattle. When he arrived, Christine called Mom and they drove him directly to the alcohol treatment center. It was the week of Thanksgiving when he entered detox.
I didn’t get to talk with him until the day of Thanksgiving when he had been flushed of the alcohol and God knows what else he’d been on. “I need help, Ricky,” Dad said on the phone as he attempted to explain what was happening. He sounded mechanical and detached, as if reading from a script as he talked about the treatment program. A year earlier and I would’ve cared. At least then we were still a semblance of a family. But that was before Mom moved out. That was then. This is now. At seventeen, I didn’t give a shit. Or at least that is what I kept telling myself.
“Who is going to stay us?” I asked. I should’ve laughed at my own question. We’d been virtually on our own since Mom left and I spent a lot time at Patrick’s house.
“Mom will stay with you while I am in treatment.”
“How long will you be gone?” I asked, surprised to hear the waver in my voice.
“Four weeks. I’m going to miss you, Ricky,” he said, fishing for reciprocity.
“Can you come home to visit?” I asked.
“I won’t be able to come home but you can probably come see me. I can’t leave until I am done with the treatment,” he said.
I wanted to say something more but knew if I did I would start crying, so we shared silence through the phone.
“Un-kay. I gotta go. Bye Dad,” I finally croaked when the tightness in my throat subsided. Handing the phone to Yolanda, I escaped to my room, slamming the door and burying my face into the pillow. The tears stung my eyes. As much as I believed I didn’t care — I ached for Dad. And I wanted him back. Now. Not since I had clung to the rock in the ocean had I felt so alone. I sobbed for the lonely place our house had become. Even a Dad that played games with our emotions with the crazy guilt trips he pulled when he drank was better than no Dad at all. And we got a Mom back that didn’t want to be here anymore. I rolled over and stared at the plaster cracks in the ceiling. The tear tracks dried on my temples, tightening as they found their way down my neck. I wanted to hear Dad call out my name. To rescue me like he had once before. The crack in the ceiling stared back in silence.
Thanksgiving was normally my favorite time of year, one of the few times I can remember Mom and Dad cooking together and Mom enjoying it. They were an eclectic mix in the kitchen: Think Mr. Rogers meets Rita Moreno. Dad would start early with the traditional courses of turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping. Mom would join him later to add her contributions of arroz con gandules (rice, pork and peas) and platanos y frijoles negros (fried plantains and black beans). If in the mood, Mom would prepare pasteles, a Puerto Rican version of tamales made from the yucca root and wrapped in banana leaves. Preparing pasteles is a two-day process so we didn’t get them very often.
Without Dad however, we didn’t get anything close to our normal feast. Besides his absence, Mom was busy with school preparing for finals. The Thanksgiving meal was almost an afterthought as she hastily threw together the ingredients. The meat looked nothing like a turkey. A gelatinous loaf pooped from a large can, the quivering mass made a sucking sound as it plopped onto the platter. Attempting to spruce up the presentation, Mom placed canned yams around the edges. It looked more like a science experiment than a Thanksgiving dinner. She stepped back to observe her work as Yolanda walked into the kitchen.
“What is it?” she asked.
Mom and I exchanged glances and then busted out laughing.
“What are you laughing about?” Christine asked, joining us huddled around the stove.
“That!” I said, pointed at the platter as if it were an oddity in a carnival sideshow. We were all laughing then, hysterical belly laughter that produced uncontrollable tears and farts. We eventually paused, sighing in unison as we wiped our eyes.
“What’s so funny about it?” Yolanda asked with complete innocence. That sent us into another bout of uncontrollable laughter, though Yolanda didn’t join us this time, annoyed at not being let in on the joke.
“Oh Mija,” Mom said to her as she caressed her cheek. “It’s nothing but silliness.”
Mom asked me to cut the loaf when we sat at the dining table. Armed with the Hamilton Beach electric knife, I dove into my task with forensic curiosity. Each slice produced a perfectly shaped round cross section; the light and dark meat equally portioned bisecting the circular slice of meat. There were no bones, tendons or cartilage to negotiate. I found myself strangely fascinated. The stuffing and gravy also came from packages, though Christine whipped up a scratch recipe of mashed potatoes. They were her specialty.
In spite of our suspicions we devoured the meal, sparring the emptiness of Dad’s chair with our laughter and making up jokes about the food. Relieved to be glad I was home, I felt a pang of guilt for not having wanted to be here in the first place. We finished with pumpkin pie, also from a can.
After Thanksgiving I stayed away for the next couple of weeks, hanging out at Patrick’s house and coming home only when I had to for a change of clothes. I easily slipped under the radar at Patrick’s, showing up at mealtime and hardly noticed at the table amongst the noise and jockeying for position next to the serving plates heaped with steaming food. I wished I were one of their children. They were normal and didn’t have that hollow feeling hanging over the house.
Mom eventually called Patrick’s, looking for me. “Honey, it’s Mom. Dad is coming home in a few days and I want you to be here.”
“Do I have to?” I asked, the warble in my voice poorly masking my detachment.
“We’re still a family,” she said firmly. “You need to be home.”
We picked up Dad at the treatment center. He looked healthy — his eyes were bright and his skin had a healthy glow. It was good to see him. He hugged all of us extra tightly and his eyes were moist as we huddled together in the foyer of the building. He then introduced us to several of the friends he had made, including a woman named Beverly. Tall and glamorous, she easily towered several inches over his head. She had frosty white hair bobbed short, long dangly earrings and glasses lassoed to her neck with a rhinestone-studded lanyard.
“Oh, hellooo,” she said as she approached us. “Bob, you have a beautiful family.”
We all stood awkwardly gawking up at her.
“And you must be Alicia,” she said to Mom, holding out her hand. “That’s such a pretty name.”
Mom had a funny expression on her face. Somewhere between amusement and disdain. For a few days at least, having Dad around the house was like it used to be. When things were normal and we were happy. I don’t actually remember a time when it was like that, but this was like that time.
“How are things going for you kids?” the counselor asked as we sat around the living room. Nobody answered. We just looked at each other and then at our feet.
“Nothing? Everything is fine then?” he pushed.
“No,” I finally offered.
“Oh? Tell me more Ricky.”
“It’s like she hasn’t really left.”
“She’s here almost every day. She brings over her dirty laundry and eats our food.”
Mom looked at me. Her eyes were swimming. She quickly wiped the corner of her eye, sniffing and blinking the moistness away.
“And she keeps leaving stuff behind, like her toothbrush and makeup.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Sort of,” I said suddenly feeling self conscious for pointing it out. It sounded so petty.
“Why do you think she is leaving these things behind?”
I thought about the question. I wished she would stop asking me and pick on someone else. “I dunno. So she can come back? It gives her a reason to return.”
Mom looked at me. She looked vulnerable, like a little girl. More tears were flowing now and the counselor got up to get the tissue box.
“Alicia?” the counselor asked. “Is Ricky right about leaving your things behind?”
Mom was looking down at the box, tugging on the corner of the tissue. “I miss you all so deeply. I cannot return, though.”
Dad shook his head. “Oh Lord.”
Several months passed by before I visited Mom. She had mentioned all along that I could come over any time, but I didn’t. It’s not as though I did not want to see her, but secretly I wanted her to suffer. I wanted her to feel the loneliness I had been feeling. Not just because of her leaving, but because of Dad too. And because of our family and how different we were. Mom was the fire hydrant for all these things.
She finally invited me to visit one weekend, promising we could head downtown and visit Pikes Place Market and ride the aging relics of the 1962 Seattle World Exposition at the Seattle Center like the Space Needle and the Bubbleator, a ginormous plastic sphere elevator. When I arrived at her apartment on Capital Hill, the space between us was stiff and awkward. Not because there was resentment or anger, but because being there with Mom in her own apartment and seeing her attend to her needs, our relationship took a turn I hadn’t expected. I was seeing a side to Mom I had never seen before — her own person. All of a sudden she wasn’t this ubiquitous figure in my life that I assumed would always be there to feed me, clothe me, vomit on when I was sick, comfort me, reassure me, me, me, me… Do all these things for me and still call me her little mijo. No, she was another person now, with her own life and burdens. It wasn’t about me anymore. It was time to be about her. And I needed to be there. For her.
We ended up lounging around her apartment all weekend, moving furniture around, hanging pictures and listening to tapes of Bochinche, a Puerto Rican salsa band. Her apartment was located in an old turn-of-the-century building with high ceilings and rippled glass paned windows. Soon we were laughing and joking, giggling at the circumstances of her living arrangements. She was truly living the nomadic life of a college student: bookshelves made of cinder blocks and pine boards and colorful bolts of fabric brought back from Africa hung on the walls. The air heavy with smell of Patchouli oil, it was a gypsy’s existence and it suited her well.
Toward the afternoon, spent and lazy from furniture arranging and dancing, I mustered the courage to ask what had been on my mind for the last few months. While mom made tea in the kitchen, I broached the topic.
“Why did you leave Dad?”
She looked at me thoughtfully, as if gauging how much to say and then turned her attention to the fringe on her peasant skirt, smoothing the strands draped over her olive toned legs. Even at fifty-four, she had the legs of a young model.
“I could not be who I needed to be,” she said, returning her gaze to me. “He wanted me to stay the same. To be the dependent little woman he met in New York so many years ago. I could not be that for him anymore. Ultimately, it was not about him, honey. Leaving your father was about me. About claiming my identity. I have changed, Mijo. I need to become who I am, which is too frightening for your father. An addictive personality is incredibly narcissistic. He needs someone who needs him, all the time. I could not be that person for him, not anymore.”
A late summer rain began to hit the windows in a sporadic beat, drawing Mom’s attention yet she looked beyond it. Beyond the glass, beyond the rain and dark gray clouds, beyond the years of trying to be somebody she wasn’t, but not knowing who she was.
“Your father did not like it when I began to explore and seek my identity. And I no longer had the patience to put up with his behavior. I had endured his antics for so many years. As I started to realize how abnormal it was, I convinced myself he would eventually change for me, but he never did. The ironic thing is I was warned about this early on, but I did not listen.”
“By whom?” I asked, now intrigued.
“Cornelia, his wife,” she said, throwing her head back, laughing heartily. Her mass of black curls tremored from her chortling that mimicked a honking swan. It was Mom’s signature and it brought me home, reminding me that Mom was still my mom.
“When we arrived in southern California we had no place to stay so we ended up at his mother’s retirement home La Jolla. Omigosh it was beautiful. She lived in a penthouse apartment on the beach. But, Grace was not happy to see us and I suspect Cornelia must have let her know we had left New York. We stayed with her for a day or two until we found an apartment, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Not long after we moved into our apartment, Cornelia called me one day while your father was out looking for work.”
“What did she say to you?” I asked excitedly, amazed that I’d not heard this story before.
“She told me about his problems with drinking and pills. That he had been this way their entire marriage. She was the one who had taken him to the treatment center in New York. Back then they called it a Sanitarium. That was where I had picked him up from when we left New York. Can you believe irony?” Mom leaned back and unleashed another round of honking. I laughed along with my high-pitched barking laugh until my gut ached and tears were rolling down my cheeks.
“Of course, I didn’t believe anything Cornelia was telling me and figured it was a bunch of lies from a scorned wife. So I ignored her warnings and she never called again.”
The conversation paused again and I lay on her floor staring at the tall ceilings as the rain drummed more steadily against the windows. “When did you realize that you would need to leave him?” I heard myself asking, surprised at hearing it come out of my mouth as soon as the thought had formed.
“After your Aunt Elise’s death soon after we returned from the Peace Corps.”
“That long ago? Why then?” I asked.
“Because I think killed herself. Of course, the official reason was she died in a car accident, but she was drunk and I knew she was in pain. Deep pain. And it ran in the family. Your uncle Harry and aunt Grace also killed themselves.”
Dad had told me the stories. It turns out he was at least truthful about that. Aunt Grace had epilepsy and lived with grandmother. She hung herself on the trellis in the backyard of their Altadena home and Uncle Thornton found her. Uncle Harry was very close to Aunt Grace and he took it harder than anyone else. Harry left for New York after that and enrolled at the Maritime Academy. Not long after, he left school one day without notice and hung himself in his apartment. Dad couldn’t tell if there was a note or exactly why Harry killed himself.
“But it was Elise’s death that grabbed me,” Mom continued. “As if I could imagine myself contemplating suicide one day if I did not change the course of things. And I knew I would not be able to get your father to change. There was too much history there in the family.”
Mom shuddered as if imagining herself still trapped in Dad’s grip, facing the rope hanging in front of her.
“Though I could not know what the price would be, I knew it would be heavy for leaving. Especially for you kids.” Mom’s eyes were swimming now in the weight of truth she was speaking.
I understood. More than she or I could ever say. I felt for her yet her absence at home still hurt. I couldn’t help not think about the hole she had left. Dad was trying really hard to make up for her being gone, but it wasn’t the same. Not even close. I didn’t go there though. I was enjoying the time with her way too much and didn’t want to spoil the moment.
I returned home with as many questions about my future as Mom had for hers. It was late August and I hadn’t even applied for college yet. I sent in an application to Western Washington University as was accepted, but there was no housing left so I’d have to fend for myself in finding a place to live. As luck would have it, after spending a couple of years playing basketball for Seattle Central, Patrick was also headed to Western to play for their team so we got an apartment together and I left for Western a few weeks later. I couldn’t put enough distance between West Seattle and me.