Dirty Secrets

The evening following her death was quiet. Too quiet. My dad sat on the floor of my grandpa’s living room, surrounded by heaps of papers and bills that my mom hid around the house during the last year of her life. I later learned through my own investigation into the mind of an addict that they’re particularly good at keeping secrets. My mom’s secrets were of a financial matter. She had a credit card no one knew about, bills left unpaid, stuffed into drawers here and there, and now my dad was sifting through all of it. 

It made sense to me, though, watching him look at old bills for the first time and have no idea who was responsible for them, or how they were so well hidden. That previous summer, my mom and dad were living with my grandpa who was recovering from surgery. My brother and I lived in our childhood home across town. One afternoon my mom called me and asked me to bring the industrial-sized jug of coffee to her because they ran out and she would rather die before ingesting instant decaf.

Dutifully, I made a pit stop to the kitchen and pulled out the jug. Behind it, my mom’s Minnie Mouse glass – a souvenir from our first family vacation to Disney World – sat behind it, half-full of clear liquid. At first, I thought it was a glass of water and thought it was very strange that it was in a food cabinet. I pulled it from the shelf and brought it to my nose. Vodka. How? She never drank vodka. 

I brought it up to her that same night. Her response was, “Don’t judge me.” I knew she was drinking vodka before she wound up in the hospital, before she turned yellow, before she forgot who she was. Yet, I said nothing, because she told me not to judge her. She told me to stay out of it, and that I wasn’t the parent. So I obliged. Partly out of fear and partly because I thought maybe if I kept her secrets she’d have more to tell me until there was nothing left to hide and maybe – when all other forms of avoidance were exhausted – she’d want to get sober.

It was uncommonly warm – the day after her death – and we opened all the windows in the front of the house, the ones facing the creek. I grew up accustomed to the smell of low tide, the oddly sweet, rotten, organic smell that rose up from the muck when the water receded. When we were little, my brother and I would blame it on the other as our parents drove us near the water. As we aged, we could pinpoint the difference between creek smell and a fart.

The smell at first wafted gently and slowly into the living room. I saw my dad wrinkle his nose a bit – especially since he was on the floor and the odor was too dense to rise up the cathedral ceilings in the cape house. My grandpa, whose diet consisted all-too regularly of things like Jarlsburg cheese and canned sardines, was unaffected. When the smell arrived to me, on the couch, it round-house kicked me in the face. Putrid, rotting organic smell. Human-organic smell.

“That’s shit.”

“What,” my dad began. Then, cut off by his own sense of smell, inhaled deeply and regretfully.

“Oh my god,” he said, “what the fuck is that?”

“Huh?” My grandpa finally looked up. For a moment, my dad and I thought he soiled himself and was trying to play it casual. 

“Shit, pop, shit,” my dad said to him. “It smells like shit.” 

Our attention turned to the four or five open windows that faced the creek. It wasn’t the creek, so my dad and I both got up and walked out onto the deck.

“I think it’s coming from the basement,” I suggested. 

My dad put on his sandals and opened the basement door only to be struck with the affirmation that yes, the smell of raw sewage was down there. Enough, in fact, to flood the floor and anything buoyant enough that once sat on the concrete was now adrift in a sea of poo. 

It was concluded that the influx of visitors over the last week to my grandpa’s house overloaded the septic system and backed up a combination of water and waste, creating an ankle-deep tide pool downstairs. My dad grabbed a Shop Vac and I recoiled to the couch. He called an emergency plumbing service to pump out the tanks and, within maybe three hours, all the crap was gone – except for the smell. 

“Look at this,” he said as he walked back into the house. I did not want to look at whatever he had in the bucket he was carrying. 

“They floated out from behind the dryer.” He tilted the bucket towards me and inside I saw several large, empty bottles of Absolut vodka. 

“Holy shit,” I said. Immediately, I thought back to the summer before, and how I wasn’t able to figure out how my mom was drinking vodka and keeping it from everyone. It all made sense. Laundry, chores, grocery shopping – she hid everything in plain sight.

Open-Ended

I often wonder what moment

for you was the pistol

and what moment

was the decision to pull

the trigger.

It’s usually a split

decision that moves like

an indiscernible 

brush stroke, uniform – 

An obvious beginning

and end but no sign

of the climax.

I often wonder what life

you would have led

if you didn’t stay – 

If you didn’t say yes 

to a rock that was below

your worth – 

If you didn’t measure 

your life in poorly 

assembled dominoes –

A uniformity doomed from the moment

you began self-medicating.

You were never meant to fall straight.

Would you have 

remained

in the Native Land

with red clay to call

home and ground yourself

to ancient beings who never fell from the sky?

Who would you have become

if you stopped

holding on so hard?

I may have never been

but I speculate the sacrifice 

would have been worth you knowing 

old age.

Untamed

In my grandmother’s kitchen my mother told me,

You will never get a boyfriend 

with your hair parted down the middle.

Her cigarette burned down as I burned down to a pile 

of inferiority. 

Clearly, naively, innocently, I listened.

I heeded the woman 

whose hair was frozen in Aquanet since 1984

that my romantic endeavors were reliant on where my hair 

fell from the top of my head 

and how delicately my hair sat atop my shoulders 

and how I should probably brush out the curls because they look messy 

You look messy. 

Sloppy. 

Knotty. 

Untamed. 

For years, I concerned myself with the aesthetics of my coils

rather than the intention of my character and the intentions that fell

from the bottom of my heart

and how loud my heart beat on my sleeve 

and how unimportant my hair was but I could not see —

Could not see past my hair 

past what I needed to be for my mother

in order to be loved by another. 

That I was raised to be thin 

to diet 

to move 

to try 

to critique what I was 

and not who I am.

To be thin and pretty God forbid I be a fat child and love my middle part —

Because we need to be thin and pretty.

My mother was thin and pretty

and blonde.

And tall.

And had sky-high hair and box dye status.

As an adult I could be fat and pretty but not pretty fat and ugly

and only after I found someone to love my hair placed delicately to the side 

could I be fat and pretty or ugly and thin 

because at least I’d be thin. 

I could let myself go only after

I placed my intentions and the messy heart on my sleeve

delicately to the side.

I could unravel like my mother did and stand behind the kitchen island 

and treat it as a podium and tell my daughter, 

her granddaughter 

You must change before you are loved.

So I walked the line of my middle part of

black and white —

Of judgment — 

Of hope someone would fall in love 

with my placement and one day I woke up too many years later and realized

This. Was. Dumb.

My hair coils and curls and speaks for itself

and spoke for me before I found my voice.

My body moves and grows and shrinks like my mane

and I am ever-changing

and always speaking.

Some days I may feel thin and pretty

or  fat and ugly and now instead of dwelling 

I release my hair 

I appreciate the entropy

and whoever can love that entropy will love everything 

I’ve come to love about me.

Dragon Woman

Smoke coiled through the seams of the car

and we sat in the back in the haze while classic rock blared

into your ears and you forgot for a moment that you were a mother,

that you were my mother. 

Loosely strumming on the steering wheel,

palms and thumbs drumming.

Music maker child maker — 

I wanted to be just like you.

I wanted to be like you until the sun went down because 

when the sun went down the bottle came out

and there was dracula — 

And the werewolf — 

And you.

You damaged, fermented 

Dragon Woman with hands that curled

to knotted tree branches and poison spat out of you.

We hid 

I hid in my closet until the lightbulb died.

And I realized I never wanted to be like you.

But you taught me so much.

You taught me to be afraid 

(I was afraid of my mother) 

So I had to be strong  

And you taught me to be strong and to question you

Question everything — 

Go against you.

Your vicarious wishes of who I should be

who I was — 

But I didn’t have a fucking clue.

And when the morning came that I watched breath escape 

your chapped lips for the final time you somehow taught me right there to look Death straight in his face 

and fear nothing because I already knew you, Dragon Woman.

And I don’t want to be you but I came from you

you created me — me.

I am the daughter of patricia — 

Of teased hair and electric blue eyeliner — 

Of wild coolness.

I grew up at the altar of an ‘03 mustang

With empty diet coke cans and Bic lighters on hand.

Bic lighters everywhere 

fire always on hand.

And you drummed your primal ancient animal skin beat to the chant in your head — 

Do no harm. Take no shit.

The final lesson of my mother.

Zombies

Zombies

I didn’t know that people could be empty. Every vampire movie – every soul-sucking, weirdo zombie flick – I finally felt like I was on the same level as those creatures. Empty of blood, of soul, of life. How could I be alive if my entire being felt cold and dead like my mother?

Patricia was on the opposite side of that spectrum, actually. She requested to be cremated. She requested a closed casket, too. No one got to see her in the state she was in; partly because we didn’t want people to remember her bloated, yellow and diseased, and mostly because her bangs were flat and she would have never stood to be in public with her hair in such disarray. Naturally there were comments on how a closed casket must have meant she looked awful. But really, what dead person looks Instagram worthy? On the morning of the funeral we stuffed her shirt with childhood photos to be burned with her and headed to the church. From there, she was carted off to a crematorium, incinerated, and placed in a jar on the mantle of the house she almost died in to serve as a reminder that we were alone and addiction was real.

“Mm, the casket is closed. It must have been awful,” whispered one strange man to another strange woman. I sat in a high-back chair against a wall in the middle of the funeral home and observed them. I observed everyone. Each passing face, each person who I didn’t recognize but said to me, “Oh you have her smile! You look just like her!” But I didn’t look just like her. If they could have only seen what she looked like under that rented casket they’d have different opinions. 

“How did you know my mother?” I glared up at them from my throne. I was the one mourning. I had the power.

“Oh, well, uh, we didn’t. We’re friends with her sister.” 

“Well my aunt isn’t here. So you can either stay or go home.” 

They left.

I felt like a wild animal, protecting a dead pack leader from the hoards of scavengers, all sniffing around for a part of her name to shred off. It was kill or be killed. I couldn’t believe that even in death there were comments about how she probably looked – how she probably died. What did it matter? She was dead. Period. We just had to ride it out, collect the flowers that would also die, and go home. 

The house plants were certainly neglected back at my grandfather’s. Fall took an express lane to the backyard and everything that was once flourishing now hung skeletal and ominous. The dahlias I got her for Mother’s Day, Nan’s geraniums, and the hydrangeas were all limp; Grandma’s peace lily from her funeral in 2008 was also down to one, measly leaf. I didn’t have the heart to toss it so I just kept watering the same shitty greenery inside and hoped for the best. It drowned a little more each day but I didn’t know where to put my need to care for the dying. I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to prevent Patricia from killing herself and, in my mind at the time, failed miserably at that. I felt selfish for going back to school, like I didn’t deserve to grow away from her. I was alive, and that wasn’t fair. 

I wandered campus, juxtaposed between the pressing social lives of my friends and the isolated void that my mind became. My priorities included meeting with professors – all of whom were wonderfully understanding that my situation was tragic, unplanned, and unfair. In particular, kudos to my social work professor who didn’t require me to shadow a hospital for six weeks following my residence at my mother’s bedside (although, I might add, she gave me a C for the semester for not shadowing a hospital, and it was “favoring” me by giving any more lenience). Post traumatic stress disorder was something I believed to be limited to soldiers and victims of national tragedies; I didn’t know it applied to my own personal disaster until the project announcement sent me into a panic attack in the middle of class.

My friends greeted me in varying levels of sympathy and awkward comments of reassurance, because none of them experienced consoling a friend who lost a parent to addiction. Anthony, in his usual silent manner, brought me in for a long albeit soft eyeball-to-nipple embrace. Most friends were silent, and simply hugged me, which I appreciated more than the words. One friend in particular, though, unsure of where to grasp condolences told me, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re back already; If my mom died I would have killed myself by now.” He meant well, and I found it pretty laughable after the exchange because I didn’t know how to react to a statement like that as much as he couldn’t control the backhanded sympathy dribbling from his mouth. 

I turned heavily into baking for some reason. Almost weekly, I ventured into town and bought dollar boxes of brownie mix, or dollar cake mix – whatever was on sale. I’d concoct delicious, although dangerously sweet, experimental desserts that my five other roommates loved and I loved eating. I thought to myself, if I wasn’t the only one eating a Kit-Kat filled brownie with melted peanut butter swirl then it was fine, right? Baking seemed almost cathartic at the time too. There is a preciseness to baking that doesn’t come with cooking meals. Baking is measuring cups and scales, whereas cooking is based off of feelings like, is this enough garlic or do I want it more garlicky? The answer is always more garlic. But, for me at the time, my feelings were so fucking catastrophic that I needed some regimented direction. Baking was a win-all – I had to follow steps and had control, and I could eat my feelings surrounded by friends who wouldn’t dare tell me I was spiraling out of control. For me there was no spiral; I was long gone. 

The isolation began to extend from within my head to my circles, especially my social work class. 

“Who here has lost a grandparent?” My professor raised her hand by example to the 28 of us, all of who raised a hand – almost proudly – in response to the question. “Alright, all of you. Makes sense. Everyone in here is over 18. Now, who of you has lost a parent?” She kept her hand down.

All of the kids kept their hands down. I felt hot and cold at the same time, like a fever. I also felt like for some reason she was challenging me because I had an ace in the hole to get out of the final project. Everything about my being was sensitive and vulnerable and I resented her in that moment. I raised my hand from the back of the classroom and her eyes met mine. Like magnets, all of the students’ eyes turned to see who she was staring at. I was the only person who raised my hand. I picked up my notebooks and walked out of the classroom.

That was the first time I really wanted to die. 

I thought, if I just surrendered to the pain I felt then maybe it would overrun my body and my heart would just stop, and that would be the end of it. I barely made it a month and I wasn’t ready to face the world without Patricia. She was the strongest person I knew and all of that shattered when she died – when she proved to everyone around her that she didn’t want to live anymore. I was so angry when she died I blurted out a couple of times that she killed herself, because I couldn’t understand the hold alcohol had on her. And I was angry with myself for saying it because I remembered how fucking terrified she was looking at me the night before she went into a coma. She knew she fucked up. She knew there was no going back. The end of her life came at 51 years old and I saw her trying to undo years of abuse in her mind for a second chance that she would never receive. 

I thought back to that summer, a month before I left for Oxford. I came home on a lunch break to find her in bed, blinds drawn, dog beside her. I lay down next to her and I asked her if she was sad. 

Three words. Are you sad? She immediately began to cry – the first time I saw her show any emotion other than anger in a year. I didn’t ask her to explain herself; she didn’t owe it to anyone to feel sad. I was just relieved that she finally opened up to me. Eventually I coaxed her out of her room and we stood in the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and took a long, personal drag.

“Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” she said passively through a cloud of smoke.

I took that statement so seriously. I offered to call out of work, take her somewhere – just the two of us. I didn’t want her to be alone.

“We don’t have to tell anyone,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I won’t kill myself.” 

No, I thought, I won’t kill myself.

Love on a Leash

The thing I liked most about Small Craft Brewing Company is that when I told friends I was drinking at the Small Craft Brewing Company they’d say, “Oh yeah? What’s it called?” Brian and I waited for his husband to show up. I had a flight in front of me that I drank down in order of color – light to dark – and he had a lager. A young boy walked through the brewery with a tub of candy bars and said he was raising money for his after school programs. 

“How much is it?”

“Six dollars.”

I handed him a ten, told him to keep the change, and split a candy bar with Brian who proceeded to drag me for giving a kid ten dollars for chocolate. “Whatever,” I said, “it’s for his school program. It isn’t a big deal.”

“I don’t know who let kids peddle candy in a bar anyway,” he replied.

The truth of my generosity was that I wanted to do nicer things – let go of control, man. Two months out of my break-up and I just looked for a sense of normalcy. I was so madly in love with my ex when we were together that every red flag looked like a regular flag until I took off the rose-colored glasses and saw a damn minefield of warning signs. I recounted the time I had to remind him to brush his teeth before bed, his unkempt car – the day he gave me back a week-old tupperware container, lined with the chili I hand delivered to his job. I should have broken up with him then; He couldn’t respect my kitchen wares, he couldn’t respect me. Bastard.

It was nice to be with Brian and his husband. I drifted into a nice buzz with only one beer in my flight left, pet a couple of the brewery dogs that hovered around for open hands and fallen snacks, and settled a little further into my single-ness. I was truly alone for the first time in years. My dog died seven months earlier at almost 15 years old and I had him since he was just a puppy. My grandfather died in January and it absolutely ripped my heart out. And then, I guess, my relationship died in February when the man I loved turned out to be a large, red-headed pile of crap. 

“I don’t want you to leave my life,” he said as he recounted the relationship he had on the side for months. I got my house key from him and didn’t look back. There were no second chances. Instead, I started therapy, didn’t eat for a week, ate too much for a week, went to Maine by myself, and sold the concert tickets I bought him and booked a trip to Georgia alone to research my grandfather’s war history at a museum in Savannah. When I wasn’t working or in a brewery I was in bed or wrote from the couch. I wanted to be alone. I wanted isolation. I didn’t want new people in my life.

“I can’t believe no one can take him home,” Brian said as he looked down at his phone.

“Who?”

“This puppy. He was surrendered to my friend in the fire department who works for the Brooklyn police department. His name’s Major. The person who gave him up said he was too nice to put in a shelter. No one can take him though. I accidentally sprayed him with a hose during drill last night and he wasn’t even mad about it.”  

Brian went on to tell me about how this puppy was passed around three or four places, but no one wanted him – or could accommodate him – and he didn’t know where he’d end up. He was a friendly dog, but still very much a puppy. He was a pitbull mix, probably. He was big

“Show me a picture,” I said. 

He took his phone out and showed me a single, head-on, blurry photo of what looked like a baby cow. I saw the eyes, though. He had very sweet-looking eyes. 

Damn.

“I’ll take him home.”

“You don’t know anything about him, though.”
“I don’t care. Where is he?”

“One of the girls has him at her apartment right now but she isn’t allowed to have dogs.”

“Can she bring him to the firehouse?”

“Kate, are you sure?”

“No. Yeah. I’m sure.” 

Maybe it was the flight of beer, or that I unconsciously crossed hairs with alone and lonely – or maybe I couldn’t stand to hear about a life that had no control over who wanted him – but I knew I needed to take the dog home. First, though, I knew he needed a name change. I Googled generic names and settled on Randall. 

“His name is now Randall.”

I slammed the rest of my beer and we piled into our respective vehicles and drove two minutes up the road to the firehouse where Randall would soon meet us. I was terrified, but I’m notorious for commitment so I sucked it up and waited to meet my new puppy. When he arrived he was exactly as I expected – sweet, clumsy, a little stupid, a couple of scars, and incredibly trusting. Honestly, he reminded me a little of myself.

“Hi, Randall.” 

I played with him, fed him treats, and let him drag me around the parking lot for a couple of hours before I loaded him into my car in the rain to drive a half hour back home. My last dog at his heaviest, was 20 pounds – lazy for his entire life; he was more like a house cat. Randall, was already at least 55 pounds and crazy. I truly had no idea what I was in for. He whined for the majority of the ride home so I rolled the window down in the back to give him some fresh air only to watch him squeeze his entire body out of the space and face plant onto the street.

Oh my god I already killed him, I thought. 

I pulled over and he was on the sidewalk, sitting, dazed, and bleeding from his chin.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I stared down at this terrified thing and he just looked up at me, motionless. I opened the car door and he jumped in again and we went home.

Aside from a gigantic dump that he took on the top of my staircase, Randall adjusted quickly to my condo. I muscled through two or three anxiety attacks at the commitment I blindly volunteered for and reassured myself I made the right decision. At the very least I can foster him, I told myself. Part of me was afraid of the life-long committal. I lost so much in such a short period of time that I couldn’t look at him without the fear of what I’d feel to lose him. I knew I already adored Randall, dysfunction and all. Maybe I was a glutton for punishment. Maybe I wanted to sleep next to something again.

 He needed leash training, vaccinations, antibiotics for the skin infection he had; He needed to be neutered; he needed command training (he was actually house trained already and the welcome home present he left me was more nervousness than anything), and I agreed to this – actually 64-pound – project. I knew he deserved love, and ultimately I knew I deserved love. My last dog wasn’t very friendly at all, and Randall was noticeably social. I nervously took him to my local coffee shop to adjust him to the public. 

Suddenly everyone was stopping me to say hi to my dog.

“Oh my god! He’s so cute! Is he friendly? He’s beautiful! Can I say ‘hi?’”

“Oh, uh, yeah, sure.” I was shocked at first but it was always the same. Perfect strangers approached me to greet Randall – who revelled in the attention – I socialized for the first time in months, and we’d be on our way. It was impossible for me to remain in isolation with him on the end of the leash. Sometimes we left the coffee shop and would get caught up in a group of passing people. Slowly but surely, he improved on the leash; he stopped trying to hug everyone he saw. I found myself making excuses to take him out and actively searched for dog-friendly establishments. Suddenly I wanted to meet people again.

Now, six months after he leaped from my vehicle in terror, Randall and I frequent shops and travel around. Together we met at least a hundred new people. He’s become a trail-hiking people greeter who rolls over for Donna the treat lady in Petco. I have to drag him out of the vet’s office because he wants to stay and hang out with all the vet techs. I, the lover of solitude, the hermit, the writer, leave my house with Randall at least twice a day to make sure he at least fills his social quota. I’ve never been so happy to see such happy innocence. He starts his therapy dog classes soon, and once he gets his Canine Good Citizen certification we can volunteer in libraries and hospitals together. He was the best buzzed decision I ever made.