When I am thirteen my mother and I have a morning routine. We wake up at quarter to six and walk down the hill that leads downtown. On our way we pass the church— plain and undistinguishable from the surrounding brick buildings—where the 7 o’clock “early bird” meeting is held. As part of her service work, and entrusted with a set of keys, my mom will be first inside the church basement. She will turn on the lights and get the industrial-sized coffee machines brewing. Before that, though, we will visit her greasy-haired boyfriend Gary at the local bakery. As part of his service work, he has convinced his boss to donate a dozen muffins every morning. The muffins are a big draw at the early bird because they are unique and delicious. I’m in the market for a new boyfriend for my mother—Gary works for five hours a night and sleeps the rest of the day, and although he doesn’t drink, I can’t count on him to keep her from getting bored and drinking while I’m at school.
My mom’s best friend is a woman named Beth, who has the stature of a bird and always keeps one or two cans of Diet Coke in her purse. Beth’s favorite muffin is the lemon poppy seed, so every morning, my mom and I crack the thin, white cardboard box that Gary has handed us and make sure there is a lemon poppy seed. More than wanting to feed skinny Beth, my mom wants not to disappoint her. Alcoholics walk on eggshells around each other, never knowing when the next relapse is lurking around the corner. When Beth’s boyfriend betrayed her, she and my mom sat in our ground floor apartment, consuming nothing but boxes of wine and microwave popcorn for days. I’d slept on the couch, giving Beth my room, hoping every night for one of them to wake up sober. Now, Beth has a routine. Every morning at the early bird she eats her lemon poppy seed muffin and cracks a Diet Coke. Of course, the absence of a lemon poppy seed muffin would not, itself, be enough to cause Beth’s relapse, and my mom knows this; it’s the fragility of the routine—of any alcoholic’s routine—that prompts her to open that box, not trusting Gary’s word.
It is recommended that you don’t date during early sobriety, especially anybody from “the program.” My mom has no regard for this recommendation. Gary is younger than her and drives a motorcycle. I also overheard her telling her sister on the phone that he is well-endowed. There’s a rumor going around that Gary’s most recent ex is dating her stepson. I personally think Gary should find out if she’ll take him back, deserving of, as he is, the type of woman who would date her stepson. Gary is no prize, but even I must admit that he is an improvement from Michael, my mom’s recent ex who had taken out his anger at her by calling her job and getting her fired. His anger stemmed from an incident in which a drunk woman would not stop harassing him and his new girlfriend. The drunk woman was my mom and the new girlfriend was the one he had been cheating on her with. The harassment occurred strictly over the phone, between tears and hiccups.
We bring the box of muffins into the stuffy church basement and set them on the card table. I switch the fluorescents on and with a whir the coffee starts brewing. We don’t talk at all until Bill walks in. Bill is the public defender who lives across the street, and he is usually the earliest early bird. Bill wears dark corduroy pants and John Lennon glasses. He is good-natured, with dimples and a kind word for everyone. If my mom must have a boyfriend, I’ve always hoped for Bill. My mom doesn’t deny that Bill is handsome and kind, but the problem is that Bill cheated on his first wife with his secretary, whom he then married. So, he has two different sets of kids decades apart. I think he reminds her too much of my father, whom she desperately wanted to have children with, despite him being 22 years older and a proven deadbeat dad.
Bill takes a blueberry muffin and a Styrofoam cup of coffee from the card table. He and my mom chat about the fight at the noon meeting the day before. Most likely they will see each other again at the noon meeting today, and I may or may not be there. I haven’t decided yet. My school bus stop is right behind the church, but sometimes I skip my eighth-grade glasses in order to hang out with my mom all day. It depends on who shows up at the early bird. It’s sometimes unbearable to watch the judging eyes of old-timers like Judd and Mike, who believe she is a bad mother for letting me play hooky.
Next to walk in is Beth, who hugs my mom because she is a hugger.
“I tried calling you last night,” Beth says.
“I passed out early,” my mom replies, “Well, not passed out! Those were the old days. Fell asleep.”
“Wait until you hear what Lenny told me,” Beth says and winks. My mom looks over at Bill—he is blissfully unaware while digging into his muffin— and gives Beth a look like: “we’ll talk later.”
I smile at their easy communication. I want to stay today. I motion to the box so Beth will know her muffin is available.
The next person to walk in secures my decision to stay. It’s John, the surfer boy, who I am in love with. He has a mess of brown hair and a roman nose, and is always wearing board shorts no matter the weather. John is too young for my mom to date and too old for me, although four years later he will try to sleep with me, and I will feel hurt for reasons I do not understand because isn’t that what I wanted? But right now he is safe still, a crush, and wonderful to imagine.
But then, so quickly I almost don’t believe it’s happened, Rob, the chubby Big Book thumper whose biggest character defect is that he hates changes, announces that, before we begin the meeting, we must remember that I am actually not welcome to stay.
“This is a closed meeting,” Rob says, retrieving a folder from the church closet. Evidently, he is chairing today. “We welcome non-alcoholics who are curious about the program to join us at our open meetings on Wednesdays.” This is why my mom calls him a narc behind his back.
I tighten my backpack around my shoulders and step confidently out the door as if that is what I’d always intended.
Once, when he’d first moved to town, Rob has asked my mom out on a date, and she’d rejected him. Still, she went over to his house one night to watch a scary movie projected onto his wall. She’d brought Beth along as a buffer. Speaking of Beth, I smile as I wave goodbye to her. The top of her muffin has a cream-cheese based icing, dried into a clear drizzle. She is eating the muffin top first, as she always does. I imagine the tacky icing sticking to her bones and fortifying her. At the same time, I am fortified by her predictability.
At the bus stop, ignored by the other children, I plan my mom’s day in my head. If she makes it to the noon meeting, she will only need to stay away from the liquor store for two hours until I get home. It seems doable. It seems, almost, effortless. Today is Tuesday, so I have no after-school activity.
Throughout my middle school years, I attend weekly Al-Anon meetings, where we talk about the term “co-dependent,” although I suspect I knew its definition long before middle school. Maybe my mom told me what it meant, or maybe I learned it around the early bird tables that I frequented for years. I illustrate the definition of “co-dependency,” in my head with a school vocabulary word: microcosm. My own body is a microcosm of my mom’s, and so I know what is coming, only, like cancer cells multiplying inside an organ, there is nothing I can do to control it.
I sit quietly through my morning classes, taking very little in. Sitting alone at lunch, I try to remember if I put deodorant on this morning. When afternoon comes, I know my mom has started drinking. Some days, there is a feeling I get, and I have not been wrong yet. Just like I can tell by her voice if she’s had just one sip, I can tell by my mood if she is sober that day. It is an unsettling feeling, an itch that makes me dread going home.
But as soon as I get off the bus, I walk towards my neighborhood, breathing a sigh of relief as I notice Gary’s motorcycle is not in the front yard. After closing her bedroom blinds, I crawl into bed beside her as she mumbles nonsense. She is still wearing the jeans and Grateful Dead t-shirt she had on this morning. I drape my arm around her in such a way that I can feel her heartbeat.
I plan our day tomorrow. Obviously, I will need to let someone know that we can’t open the meeting, so they will need to find someone with keys to unlock the basement and start the coffee. I’m sure Rob will volunteer. When Gary comes over after work, I will lock the door on him. Having him around will only make her urges worse, and I can’t risk another five-day bender. He will be hoping to sleep in her bed, I know, not caring if she is sober or not. Her clarity of thought means next to nothing to him. He is not dating her for her thoughts.
Four years later, when my mom is laid out in the ER due to stomach pains that will soon be labeled “Stage IV Colon Cancer,” Gary will not bring her the change of underwear she has requested (such a simple favor) and it will be over.
At 25, I am acutely aware of my age because it is half of her life. I can still clearly feel my palm moving up and down on her skin all those times I kept vigil in bed during my adolescence. Her unsteady breathing made her feel hollow, like she wasn’t a person at all but a void begging to be filled up. Whenever I encounter the flavor of lemon poppy seed, it brings waves of disappointment and devotion, memories of contempt and care. As a girl, I believed I just hadn’t figured it out yet, but now I think there was nothing to figure out. I felt guilty for attempting to sabotage my mother’s relationships with a string of increasingly imperceptive men, yet I was compelled to protect her from them. Both instincts were valid. Because she deserved love, even if she was an unfillable void and as her daughter, I am born of that void, and deserve it too.
A high school literature & composition teacher, Mary Ansell lives and writes in Gainesville, Florida. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Inflectionist Review and Whale Road Review.