Sunday, July 02, 2006

Answer to Dweezila, 5

Jean commented, You do realise you have to carry on now? Having got this involved, we need to know the whole story of how you got from there to here. I falter, at that. How did I get here?

I know things that looked like turning-points at the time. I view them with some skepticism. People love to find turning points. Decisive battles. Reigns of great kings. Declarations of rights. History, and personal history especially, is usually considerably more messy and inconclusive than that.

But here's a thing like a turning point. It was summer. I must have been thirteen. I stood in my bare feet on the sidewalk in front of my stepfather's house -- my house. The cement was already hot in the morning sun. Ants hurried erratically past, chasing their shadows.

I said aloud, "I have to get out of here within a year."

Or at least somebody said it in my voice, and I knew it was true. I had to get out.

"She may die. I still have to get out," said the same voice.

My mother's second marriage went bad faster than her first. She had made friends in graduate school, and her friends didn't like her husband -- and as always, she was fatally susceptible to other people's stories; their story was that this was a sensitive woman's unhappy marriage to a boorish alcoholic. It was not, to my mind, particularly true. Mostly what was true was that they -- and she -- were lefty New-Agey idealistic psychology students, and he was a phlegmatic, no-nonsense, Republican engineer. And she knew the way out of a marriage, now, which must have sped things up.

So anyway, after a brief disorienting time of having my mother energetic and happy, we were back to what I knew as real life: slow revolution around a center of brooding despair, an implacable machine for devouring chocolate, gazing blankly at the television soap-operas. The spell of depression was broken from time to time fits of sudden extravagant affection. She would seize me and hug me. I was the apple of my mother's eye. I was cheerful and encouraging, affectionate and sweet. The one unbroken piece of her life. I was not at all sure that she would survive, if I left home. Suicide -- never talked about -- hovered in the corners of the house. I might be abandoning her to die, if I went away. I looked at that and decided to go.

My sister had been away for two years already at a couple different free schools. My brother was sometimes at the house, more often not -- drinking heavily, bussing dishes at a steak house, showing up at random in the early-morning hours on his motorcycle. Sometimes he had his own apartment, sometimes not.

Next year my sister was going back to the New School, in Spokane, one of those free schools. I sounded the idea that I might go too.

I was only thirteen. But I was going to hell in a handbasket. I had always been an A-and-occasional-B student, but in the last two years my grades had plunged to C's and D's. Nearly flunking some classes. And I was starting to get in trouble sometimes. There was not, my mother may have thought, much to lose; it was worth playing a longshot that a radically different environment would straighten me out.

I was in terror -- as I always have been since -- of talking to strangers on the telephone. Then as now I will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. My mother eventually agreed that I could go to the New School. But only if I was willing to make the phone call to arrange it.

I made the phone call. Stammered my way through a conversation with the director of the school. I got out.

I was to spend a couple more summers, and one strange twilight year, my sixteenth, living with my mother, back in Eugene, in a big empty house on the heights above the Willamette River. But in my mind I always think of myself as having left home at age thirteen. I left home the moment I decided to let my mother die.

No comments: