I was six-going-on-seven in the early fall of 1982 when Dad left Phoenix. Or Mom left, but Dad moved. These were secrets no one knew. Except God (The man who watched to see if you were bad). He probably knew. Which was why it was important to smile, to be brave. It was important to be careful. He watched from the vast Arizona sky when I was a showy fraud in the second-grade talent show, wearing a matte-black leotard and pipe-cleaner whiskers, and mock-belting, “It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the hmmmm of the fight, risin’ up to the challenge of our rival, and the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night and he’s watchin’ us all in the IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII IIIIIIIIII, of the tiger.”
I sensed that I was perched on the lip of an invisible black hole—I could feel it, the sucking maw. I understood, for example, that God (as if in a personal directive) expected me to watch out for my baby brother, Josh, to keep his belly full and his smile easy. Yet, I couldn’t seem to do anything right that year. My performances were too emotive, like a chubby girl-doll version of Nathan Lane, and I couldn’t keep gum out of my hair or concentrate on multiplication tables, or not eat “like a pig,” as Mom relished pointing out.
In those years, I was a living doll for her. All of my clothes were hand-sewn and catalog pretty. For school pictures and Sears’ portraits, she would roll my hair in pink foam curlers before tucking me into the tight envelope of my bed, and I would try to sleep while remaining still as a corpse, my neck so tensed I would tear up with the effort of keeping my head off the pillow. In the morning, she would brush my curls into silky, chestnut waves, cooing over my thick mane, while ignoring the fact that my red-rimmed eyes made me look like a wino.
It was her fussiness with me that I found oppressive; the incessant tweaking overwhelmed me and helped me to learn two truths—one, perfection was king, and two, I would never measure up: I was too round, too messy, too crooked, too wrinkled, dirty, and I had ridiculous double-jointed back-bending legs that could be grotesquely inverted—like a Barbie Doll’s, only thicker. “Stand up straight,” Mom would say through gritted, smiling teeth, her knees poked into the tender crook behind my legs, and her fingernail ground into the base of my spine. I began to yearn for rebellion against her then with a rage that went underground in my belly, and the anger became an ember I held there—stoked by her mistakes, her criticism, her own rage, and her imperfect love of Josh and me.
There was no explanation for Dad’s departure, just a careful laying out of the facts as I eyeballed his old Beetle in the driveway from the living room: We were going to stay with Mom for a while, Dad had to go work “Back East,” either he or we would visit soon, and we would ride there in an airplane. Didn’t I remember, Mom said, that I had been in one when we moved from Chicago? I was just a baby, so beautiful that people everywhere stopped to admire me, so small that she carried me on her lap and called the stewardess for help when I screamed during take-off and climb. I wouldn’t have believed the power of those little lungs. The stewardess had filled little Styrofoam coffee cups with boiling water, let the water sit for a minute, and then emptied them. With the cups still steaming, she hustled them back down the aisle to our row, where Mom clapped them over my ears. The foam held in the steam and sealed off the pain. I fell asleep on her chest almost immediately, while Mom watched the plane’s shadow trace along the southern edge of Lake Michigan.
It would be temporary, Dad said, a word that lacked shape or scale and did little to console me. I didn’t even know what it was and was afraid to ask. There was no comfort offered, just Dad speaking in a soft voice and Mom looking on helplessly. I surveyed the room: Josh a stupid, smiley chub, Mom hopeless and blubbering, and Buddy tilting his dog face and looking up through eyes overhung with scruff. That left me. I knew this on instinct in my body. As time wore on, this duty took on language and color, but then it was just a cold stone that I held in my chest as I watched Dad line plastic suitcases up under the arch of the front door.
It was later that fall when I made my first move, folding a wad of chewing gum into a crease in my front pocket at school, pressing it into the seam and fingering the granules of sand I scooped up while whooshing down the slide. I even got sand in my underpants, a fact that made me smug with happiness. Mom would hate this, but the playground seemed planetary years away from home, which empowered me with a false sense of independence and indignation at having to wear something so fussy.
I wore the same navy and white seersucker smock dress that she had hunched and cursed over for weeks, a Kahlua and skim milk tottering on top of the old Singer. I knew this cocktail was called a Sombrero; I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that fact. She had been so excited pulling the fucking, god-damned dress over my head with the fabric still warm from the iron, which was confusing because I was pretty sure she hated the dress, or me. The great gum rebellion of 1982 was the beginning of my dance with her, the foreboding of a relationship mined with secret rebellions.
I figured Dad’s leaving had something to do with all those times she locked herself in the bathroom. Once inside, Mom would blow like a firecracker. From my room, even with the pillow over my head, I could hear the commotion. I couldn’t make out what she would scream through her sobs, couldn’t interpret the sounds of crashing and banging. Only later would I learn that these explosive episodes were suicidal threats. I knew that her rages and obsession with perfection exhausted the people around her, but not me. I thought if I had boundless energy, if I could give her all my smiles and good cheer, if I could give her every ounce, then she might get happy—that she might be drenched in it.
Years later, I heard a Robert Creeley poem in an undergraduate seminar, and though I think it’s more about one’s internal struggle toward happiness or something approximating it, I first read these lines as if in a secret plea to Mom: “Love, if you love me,/ lie next to me./ Be for me, like rain,/ the getting out/ of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-/ lust of intentional indifference./ Be wet/ with a decent happiness.”
Toward the end of that year, Mom, Josh, the dog, and I all moved out to a place in Moon Valley, which was then just a dusty outcrop of Phoenix proper with nubby hills and cactus scrub. Mom started night school for paralegal studies, which meant Josh and I would stay late at the hotel where our babysitter worked, to at least past 7p.m., when we would get to watch Wheel of Fortune at the bar and eat PB &Js for supper. Those sandwiches filled me with enormous relief and comfort, as did the game-show ditties. She took classes through the fall and winter, often rushing in after dark, with cartoon tumbleweeds of stories and excuses for the bartender. On those nights, Mom’s exhaustion was my ally—her Estée Lauder dialed down to a whisper.
I played a little game with myself in the front seat of our station wagon. I counted up to sixty and scanned for jack rabbits. I took furtive sips of the cool canyon air. One. Two. Three…..Seventeen….C’mon, bunny…let me see you. I held my breath. I counted. I saw three jack rabbits in 1982.
The temporal world is a funny thing in one’s formative years—my sense of time like the colored sand poured through one of those stretched out county fair coke bottles. My memories of the year with Mom and Josh knife into my mind with cinematic force, but no fixed chronology. When Mom forgot herself, we could all breathe. The three of us would get falling-down silly and dance rapturously to Bill Withers and Toto. We would laugh at Buddy, a precocious, tinsel-haired rag of a dog who wore the eyes of a refugee—black, windowless, and liquescent. He was as absurdly serious as I was.
Mom loved to hold court at dinner parties, and I would hang on her every word as she told her friends about how Buddy trailed me around the house, indulging my every whim. I had liked to rehearse grown-up fantasies with him, driving around and running important errands, all of it staged in the lower cupboard of the kitchen. Even though he was game, Buddy was different after we moved to Moon Valley. He lacked the certain foppish hop he had before; he seemed sad, and he kept running away—seven miles back to our old house on North 36th. We kept a stack of fliers in the drawer of the entry table, but we usually got him back because our old neighbors would call and say they’d found him panting in the driveway.
Our new house sat on the edge of a desert preserve, and I began to retreat both into it and into an interior landscape, a place where I collected imagery and breath, a world saturated with language and informed by the preternatural landscape of the canyons. There was geography outside of me, bigger than our little cul-de-sac. It was the realm of palpable indifference that soothed me—the cacti, red rocks, dust, rattlesnake peelings, and Lookout Mountain. This landscape stood aloof to my personal circumstances—and yet—it existed. It persisted even. Each morning I rose to find that the canyons were still there, performing their geological business. There was a scope and scale that had nothing whatever to do with school, Mom, Josh, or me. I also began to read a lot, curled up in the tan corduroy chair by the front window. And I began to fantasize about leaving and going anywhere else—to the battle sites in Red Badge of Courage, to Sweet Valley High, or to the prairies of Laura Ingalls Wilder where they smoked delicious, salty meats.
Later that winter I grew an inch, and Mom cried as she made pencil markings on the door jamb. Sometimes, late at night, I would hear her talking on the phone in the kitchen, ice clinking into glass. On other nights, there would be an animal wailing (more coyote than human), and I would pad out of our bedroom toward the sound just to check. “Mommy?” I would whisper into the dark. If she was too far gone, she would simply look back at me blankly, but sometimes she pulled me into her lap where I would feel her sweet breath in my hair.
This volatility unnerved me; I was tiptoeing through a sea of moving glass. Mom’s temper possessed a broad repertoire, which included pinching, fingernail digging, squeezing, hair-pulling, swearing, and bum swatting. What she spewed privately showed an ugliness reserved only for us. Even Dad had gotten away. She overcompensated in public, effusing this, that, and the other of our achievements to her coworkers, describing in flowery detail the hallmark family moments she compulsively projected. There was this movie version of our life where we performed as if we were the rosy-cheeked children who had stepped from a Jimmy Stewart film. And then there was our real life. This was the secret.
Divisions of public and private confuse children, but I was a quick-study and an eager charge. On the outside, you might have believed that our family lived in a precious little snow globe. Everything was staged for that effect. The way photographs lie and make you look happy. Mom sewed beautiful, matching clothing for us. She set out lovely cookies for guests, Christmas cookies, made in a flour-dotted Mommy & Me torture chamber. I learned to lie for her.
In a portrait taken many years later when Mom was living back in Boston, the three of us sat for her annual Christmas photograph on a brick patio located in the airshaft behind the brownstone she couldn’t afford on Beacon Hill. We wore matching black Jordaches and cable knit sweaters and posed with a glossy Golden Retriever. Except the dog wasn’t ours—he belonged to one of the neighbors. Her lies always comprised lovely details, golden retrievers, brand names, schools from which she never graduated, and the names of towns that were never ours. She lived her life as the protagonist in her own fantasy fiction. And like a ready character, I smiled for outsiders on cue. Life with Mom was an elaborate, mysterious charade with last minute rule changes.
The spring before Josh and I left Phoenix for good, Mom had some friends over for his third birthday. We made an Easter Bunny cake from a Better Homes and Gardens’ recipe, with coconut for the bunny fur and gum-drops for eyes. I mashed Josh’s face hard against mine for the picture, and I doted on Mom. “The cake’s perfect!” I exclaimed. “Wow, Mom, it is sooooooooo good!” I can’t remember what set her off later that night when she threatened to put us on a plane to our father. Her boyfriend, Jim, had come over for the party, but when she started hollering at him, Josh and I went and sat on the little concrete slab outside our patio doors and stared dumbly at the dusty hills.
Jim came out after about an hour, his face flushed, and I remember he patted us on the head and rolled us down the dirt hill in our dump truck a few times. I remember because he had never patted me like that before, and while I thought it was weird, it also made my throat go lumpy. Before he left, Jim showed Josh how to throw a wobbly little toddler spiral with the Nerf football that he had brought as a gift. Perhaps she threatened to send us to Dad another weekend, but it is this night that stands out to me as the first. There were plenty of other times—she was always snapping and vowing to ship us “Back East.” I really wanted to go there, to this fabled hinterland, to catch my breath and to see this place of my father and his massive family, my family.
When upset, she got on the phone for hours, and I would lie at her feet on the kitchen linoleum tangling gum into my hair, vaguely on purpose. I loved when she was on the phone because I could get credit for being around with the person on the phone taking all the hits. She would talk to Trish or to Pauline about how difficult her life was. She spoke about us as if we weren’t there, and she spoke about my father as if he were hers and not ours: “He’s being an asshole…mmm hmmm, yes, back to New Hampshire. He thinks he’s so fucking perfect. I know. I know. But he will never, ever take MY children. I don’t care about the perfect schools or his perfect fucking family…”
While she seemed driven to maintain custody of us, it wasn’t clear why—I suppose it was a point of pride (or of hanging on): she never wanted to capitulate to the man who pricked the fantasy bubble she anesthetized herself in, who rejected her because, well, there was something wrong—something dark, serious, irrevocable. There wasn’t a name for it back then, certainly not in the language of the world that both of my parents carefully constructed for us—for our protection, and for theirs. But today, they might call it a personality or mood disorder, or a combination of both, possibly Bipolar mixed with Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder: a therapist of mine would later take stabs at a diagnosis. By the end of that year in Phoenix, Dad began to argue the sense of moving us kids back to New England.
Buddy never adjusted to our split family, nor to our move across town. He continued to be confused about where he lived, and at least once a week he’d trot back to our old house in central Phoenix—to as far as Bell Road, a six-lane boulevard, where I imagined him stranded on an island with other scraggly, lost souls. One day I left the door open too long as I watered the cacti out front. He tore off toward a construction site farther up the circle drive, and disappeared over a hill into the waterless canyons. “Get in the car,” Mom sighed, and we climbed into the plushy beige of the family wagon.
“You look right; I got left,” she said, breathing in a great huff that lifted her bangs from her forehead. “I ga back!” Josh called from his car seat. The panic thumped in my chest; my mouth went dry. I looked left, right, left, right—my little head on a swivel.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find him,” Mom offered. “He probably went back to our old house, right, JayCEEE?” she called to Josh.
“Buddy Confused!” Josh laughed. “Why, Mamma?”
“He thinks we still live on our old street,” Mom said.
“Is he looking for Daddy?” Josh asked.
“I don’t know, honey, maybe.”
“Are we gonna see Daddy?” Josh said.
“Not today, hon; Daddy’s in New Hampshire.”
“Did Buddy go to Nampsherr?”
We made it over to Bell Road, then back-switched through our old neighborhood, winding in concentric circles around Black Canyon. I clenched the fliers in my chubby fingers, counted, and scanned for jack rabbits—for luck or for good measure. We searched for hours; each corner or turn brought a rush of hope. This went on, but we had grown hungry, silent, defeated, so Mom decided to take us home. “Don’t worry, honey,” she patted my knee, “he’ll turn up.” But somehow I just knew that Buddy was gone forever, too.
There were other phases, later developments. There were parties in her place on Beacon Hill in Boston during her visitation weekends when Josh would play bartender while standing on a chair, and Mom and her friends would fold dollar bills into the tip jar he had set out. I would go into the second bedroom to read, and Josh would update me on his earnings throughout the night. There were mornings after, the apartment littered with bodies and coarse salt.
There was a short period when I fought with her—openly and with hostility. For the first time since 1982, I lived with her in Marblehead, just 15 miles north of Boston; it was during the summer before I went to college, and she had gotten me a receptionist job at her office in the State Street Bank Building downtown. Because I had to be there early, I took the bus into the city every morning, and if I missed it, I took the blue line subway train from Wonderland Station where all the hangdog gamblers sat on the boardwalks gumming their cigars. In the evenings I contrived excuses not to ride home with her (through the tunnels with her cursing and stabbing at the car phone), but usually it was easy because she went for cocktails with so-and-so or so-and-so (you remember so-and-so, don’t you honey?). Cocktails were at hotel bars and stylish venues where I felt out of place in my bibbed dresses and running shoes.
That summer I fell in love with an Icelandic medical student who had an umlaut in his name (an umlaut!). He came over one night, and we watched The Simpsons until Mom came home. She slipped into her bedroom and came out a few minutes later in a silky camisole jumper; she slinked past the television and into the kitchen, poured herself a glass of wine, and retrieved cigarettes from the kitchen counter. She folded her legs off to the side like a little bird and spoke loudly and over the television. I don’t know what embarrassed me more, her obvious drunkenness, or the fact that she wanted to fuck him.
There was the time after I came home from a trip to Italy when she rented a posh suite in Carmel and picked me up from my cocktail waitressing job in San Francisco to rescue me for the weekend. She put me in a fluffy robe and fussed over me: did I want room service? A funny movie? Shopping? But it was too late. What I wanted to do was get drunk and thumb through the boutique racks and not talk. After dinner, wine, and shots of Sambuca at the bar, she cornered me. “Honey, I wanna talk about the rape—younee to talk bout id.” I didn’t answer: I was too busy thinking how rape wasn’t exactly the right word. How she could never get it right, or how I would never let her.
There was the time when Keith and I first started dating, when we were living in Houston and we had to evacuate the city from Hurricane Rita in a caravan with her, my friend, Emily, and Josh. We drove 11 hours to her friend’s house on Lake Travis outside of Austin. When we got there, her friend wanted to keep Keith’s dog, Jimmy, in the garage. It was then that Keith and I had our first fight—in this ornately-lit driveway, arguing in croaky stage whispers because he wanted to turn around and go back to Houston. I wanted a drink.
He stayed, and we all got drunk that night, including mom of course, who, for no other reason than he was convenient, picked a fight with Keith. Sweet, calm, brand-new, unsullied, Keith—my future husband. I can’t remember what she slurred at him, but I told her to stop, and she did, but not before stomping around and announcing that she was going to a hotel. Later that night while sitting in a hot-tub and passing around a joint, I found out even her friends could barely tolerate her. Sandrama, they called her. I felt validated. I felt sad.
And then there was the time when we didn’t speak for a whole eighteen months. It was after I had checked myself into rehab to confront my own alcoholism, and she found out that the hospital recommended doing separate family days—one with just her and one with Dad, Keith, and my stepmom. She got drunk, barricaded herself in her house, and called a distant uncle who called my grandmother who called my brother. She was saying she would kill herself. Normally, we would drive over, coax her out, ply her with cigarettes, and soothe her with numbing words. But this time I had problems of my own to deal with. Josh wondered what we should do. “Nothing,” I said.
And yet, nothing would not be the end. I knew this. I hoped she knew it too, in spite of my anger and our long, icy silence. (Never did I not love her. Not for one minute.) With time, I wondered if we might turn the old record over and play the B side—together and separately, shakily, soberly. After 18 months, I picked up a heavy, embossed sobriety chip and the phone. Or, she picked up the phone (memory is fickle, and I am no court reporter). I went over to her house on Sunset, and we giggled as her dust-mop dogs skittered underfoot. As Mom cut up some fruit and brewed fresh coffee, I leaned on the counter, flushed with shame and hope. We sat on her patio. God, she’s beautiful, I thought, looking long into her face lit by a shard of Texas sun. We both pulled hard on our cigarettes and dwelled awkwardly in the rest in the music, before a new song began.
Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Transfer Magazine, 14 Hills SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity Magazine’s blog. One of her Brevity posts was “Freshly Pressed” by WordPress in 2012, and she was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest. A nonfiction student of Stonecoast’s MFA program, Paige is writing a memoir about the 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system that taught her how to grow up at 30. She lives in Vermont with her husband and dogs, where she teaches writing and watches the weather.