Vinnie Dombroski screams through my car speakers: On your note is my reply, I wished I loved you… Don’t ask why. Sponge’s song “Molly (Sixteen Candles Down the Drain)” is a dualistic post-grunge ballad. It’s a song about suicide fueled by unrequited love, as well as homage to all the Molly Ringwald movies I’d watched as a kid—Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club. Sponge sang that love was dangerous. But Molly made it feel inevitable.
The first time I saw Molly on screen I was twelve, just a few years younger that she was. I sat in front of the TV in our house on Westlake Street with my twin ten-year-old brothers, knees touching, faces aglow. The Breakfast Club whined on the rented VCR as we shoved leftover goulash in our mouths. The movie turned thirty this year, but it’s such an iconic film that even if you weren’t born when it was first released, you probably know the story: a brain, an athlete, a princess, a basket case, and a criminal enter Shermer High’s library as enemies ready to suffer through Saturday detention and the worst aspects of school: bloated egos, boredom, rejection. As the day progresses, the group rallies around a shared enemy—leisure-suited Principal Vernon—smokes some weed, and sheds stereotypes like dead skin.
“This is what rehab is like.” Mom paused the videotape and pointed to the circle of teens who exchanged secrets like phone numbers. The athlete had just started to cry.
“Your Mom’s going to the hospital,” Judy said when I asked what was wrong. “You’ll see her in a few days.”
By the time my brothers and I saw Mom at the hospital, a week later, we were prepared for all kinds of ailments that Grandma fretted about—sarcomas, kidney failures, diabetic comas. But Mom had a different story to tell us.
We sat across from each other in a fifth-floor hospital room, my brothers and I on one bed, mom on another. “For the past two years I’ve been abusing drugs and alcohol,” she said, staring out the window behind us. “Mostly marijuana and codeine pills. I’m an addict.” She sighed and nodded towards another Judy who stood in the doorway, just as stiff and coifed as the first one. “We all have to live with Hard Truths now.”
The past year flashed before me—the Bacardi 151 on the kitchen shelf I sometimes partially emptied then topped with water; Mom’s empty hands after trips to the store; all those evenings she locked herself in her room. Then there were the red pills.
Three months before our Hard Truths talk, I’d slipped into Mom’s room to play with a locket engraved with her initials. On most weekdays Mom left for the store before we got home from school and returned some time between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. Her jewelry box lay open on a dressing table. Red pills, like blood splatter, dotted the surface. I figured Mom must’ve spilled them accidentally, but in the darkness I couldn’t find the bottle. So I scooped them into the plastic bag I found on the floor and set them inside her jewelry box.
Mom arrived home around six, smiling. In the kitchen I told her what happened.
She slapped my arm. “Are you a snoop? Do you know what happens to snoops in the real world? They get shot and die. Do you want that to happen to you?”
For the past three months I’d wondered if I was a snoop waiting to get shot. But instead of a bullet, a Hard Truth had pierced my heart, one that hurt worse than a sarcoma. As we sat together in that hospital room, words kept falling from Mom’s mouth as I ran out the door, yelling, “How could you?”
But she caught me in the hallway, and promised it would all be okay. “Don’t you see how hard this is for me? I love you more than you could ever know.” She sobbed into my shoulder. I said I loved her back, love being the word necessary for this situation. But as we hugged, my love crumbled.
The definition for rehabilitation in Grandma’s dictionary said, “To restore, like a house to its original condition.” Synonyms included “comeback,” “healing,” and “rally.” During those thirty days I also learned that rehab involved thirty-minute phone calls on Sundays, unanswered letters, and feeling alone.
I hoped Molly would end that loneliness as Mom pressed play and we sat on our living room floor. Mom’s comeback eyes danced from character to character, as if the movie on screen triggered another invisible movie that now played in her head. I wanted to part the curls of her thickly sprayed hair and reach inside this rehab mystery that gave you movie star dreams of crying in circles and being hugged.
As the credits rolled we disco-danced to the theme song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” while Mom sang the chorus. By the movie’s climax, love had prevailed. Molly, the princess, hooked up with the criminal; the athlete with the basket case. Even the brain felt understood.
Mom was our Molly, a natural redheaded princess who loved makeup and clothes. She was someone who’d also prevailed, emerging from her own version of detention, well-fed, sassy, and ready to teach us the hustle. She insisted that her club—the rehab club—was just like the movie. Studying the screen was like reliving the past thirty days, only this time we were together. If we all chose characters and followed the script, our lives could be that successful. I only hoped her club was still recruiting new members.
It seemed like Mom wanted this too. While my brothers and I hadn’t yet applied for membership, she showed us the initiation rights. “No more Scope, wine, or non-aerosol hairspray,” she said, tossing bottles into the trash. She even chucked the bottle of Shalimar perfume her boyfriend John had given her, explaining that while cigarettes and Pepsi were allowed, lying and avoiding feelings were a thing of the past. “Here,” she thrust a single subject notebook into my hands, “you probably have a lot of feelings. It helps to write them down.”
The next night at dinner, she told us about other “club” members. “When we were locked up in detox, the heroin addicts fantasized about this vein right here.” She pointed to a bulging snake of a vein on the back of her hand. “They said they’d cradle it like a baby. They were so honest and sincere.” She smiled dreamily as she revealed their virtues, then added, “And tomorrow we’ll go to AA.”
AA was apparently the at-home version of the rehab club. I considered what to wear to our first meeting based on Breakfast Club fashions—red-checked flannel shirt, oversized black turtleneck and scarves, horrible green sweater I actually owned. Blending in seemed key. If our costumes matched the scenery, everyone would think we belonged; membership the first step in being understood.
Right before the meeting Mom prepped us regarding AA formalities. “Here’s what’s going to happen kids,” she said as we wolfed down dinner. “We’re going to go into this church, and sit down. Some people might drink coffee or eat cookies, but we’re just going to sit. In the back. Now, I’ll have to stand up and say that I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict, but know that’s not really true. I was never an alcoholic, and the pills thing, well… it was kind of blown out of proportion.”
At the time, her responses made sense. Just like in The Breakfast Club, our problems were completely misunderstood.
“Just your first name. Everything’s anonymous.”
The meeting was held in a hushed corner room of a local church, heavy with stale cigarette smoke and weak coffee. Most of the adults were old, crooked-backed, and gray-faced. They smiled weakly at us as Mom pointed to a row of chairs near the exit. Filled with questions, I scanned the room. Where was the athlete? Who was the criminal to Mom’s princess? At what point would she tuck her lipstick into her cleavage and paint her lips from her bra?
Mom popped a Certs then walked over to one of those gray-faced men as my brothers and I sat down. They exchanged hugs and a few whispers in the ear before Mom rejoined us. After what felt like an hour of muffled conversation, backslaps, and hugs, everyone settled. Someone read from a script, then passed it around.
On cue, Mom said her line, just as she had told us. Blood rushed to my face as I joined the roll call, followed by A.J. and Joe, who stared at their shoes. Names fired off beyond us and left our heads just as quickly. Steps were pronounced and problems discussed, but all I cared about was who was who.
Halfway through the meeting, I thought I’d spotted the basket case but I wasn’t sure. The edge of the chair dug into my back. Next to me, A.J. and Joe began to wiggle. I pinched A.J.’s bicep after he kicked my shin. Joe pinched him too, leading A.J. to knuckle punch us both in the thigh.
“Ow! You fucking jerk,” Joe said, louder than a whisper.
Mom squeezed my forearm as anonymous men and women frowned. Grinning into my ear, she mumbled, “Let’s go,” and pushed the three of us toward the doors. Outside, we raced to the car. Instead of mentioning our stupid shit, she bit her lower lip and blushed.
Clearly leaving early was a rule violation, but maybe it wasn’t so bad. At one point in the movie, the criminal had been ostracized, but eventually the group took him back. Maybe AA members were as caring as the heroin addicts. Maybe all we had to do, as a family, was get to that teary-eyed scene where Mom had stopped the tape, and everyone had been real, and it would all be okay.
I thought our time had come the next day when Mom picked me up early from school. Months earlier, it had been agreed that that I would visit my aunt in Buffalo the day after I left sixth grade. My Greyhound bus left the next morning.
“How was your day?” Mom said as I tossed my books onto the backseat.
She shrugged then turned up the radio, which played “That’s What Friends Are For.” It was the theme song for her relationship with John. Over the last six months, Mom belted out the lyrics every time the song aired on MTV or the radio. But John hadn’t been mentioned all week. It was like she’d tossed him along with his Shalimar, which was just fine with me. He was funny enough, and Mom liked his company, but molding four people into characters who could pass club tests was difficult enough. Besides, I didn’t want to share her with anyone else.
But if Mom and I were going to get real, I had to distract her from this song. A secret was needed, one worthy of tears, but safe enough that it wouldn’t anger her or get me in trouble. That excluded all of my secrets but one.
That secret involved a boy named Mikey and the dangers of love.
Mikey was a seventh grader who shot himself while everyone else was at school. He was a broken-hearted thirteen-year-old I’d met during the last week of his life. Two weeks into Mom’s rehab stint. A couple of friends and I had wandered the local mall when Mikey and a classmate strolled by. We made eyes at the boys then ran from Spencer’s Gifts to Baskin Robins. Mikey followed us again and again. He seemed sweet with his aviator glasses and acid wash jeans; someone you could fall in love with if you had enough time.
His suicide showed me that some of my secret fears could turn real. Mom had threatened suicide a number of times after we pulled our stupid shit and ruined her day. Once she handed me a crinkled slip of paper and said, “Call this number tomorrow morning after you find my corpse.” All through the evening I ran between her bedroom door where I begged her to live and the telephone where I dialed all the numbers but one.
“Are you listening to me?” Mom tapped me on the shoulder. Smoke trails from her cigarette tangled between us. “Do you think I should still be with John?”
The song played in the background. I shrugged.
“Well, I’m considering it.”
Cape cods and colonials slipped past my window—houses that led not to the store, but to the job she shared with John. “What’s on your mind, sweetie?” Mom squeezed my arm. “I can tell something’s wrong.”
This was our Get Real moment.
“There was this boy at the mall named Mikey,” I said, head down, just like the athlete in that scene. “Mikey had a great smile. But he shot himself after writing his girlfriend’s name all over his body. It happened two weeks ago.”
I stared straight ahead, hoping she would stop the car and share a secret of her own. But she shook her head and continued to drive toward her work, more smoke tangling between us.
By the time we arrived, a light rain fell across the windshield “I’ll be back.” Mom said, adding more lipstick as she studied her face and hair in the rear view mirror. She slipped from the car, walked up to the door and waited. John stepped onto the porch, and ran his fingers through his jet-black hair. They headed towards the car, but stopped twenty paces away, faces inches apart. Mom’s hands careened through the air.
I imagined the script between them, silently cheering her on.
“I’m not taking any of your shit.”
“Yeah, I am a big fat asshole.” John rubbed his jaw then turned away.
Mom grabbed his arm. “That’s right. You better listen!” But then she pulled him to her, their mouths meeting in the misty rain, arms as tangled as the smoke had been between us. It was definitely her Molly moment.
Eventually they parted, hands touching just a little longer. Then John walked back into the house, Mom to the car. “I guess we’re back together,” she giggled as we headed to the mall.
I smiled and hugged her one more time then boarded the Greyhound. As the bus crept through the broken down terminal lot, I waved to her and crunched a Certs. The mint burned my tongue. I wanted to think of her, but all I could think about were heroin addicts, aviator glasses, and that kiss.
As a family we hadn’t been able to follow the blueprint, though we’d tried in all sorts of terrible and wonderful ways to belong. Eventually, I took off.
But six hundred miles away the movie still had an impact. A roommate we’ll call Jeremy slipped on a weightlifting glove and watched The Breakfast Club whenever he had a bad day. Sitting on the living room floor, he fist pumped all of the criminal’s lines, sometimes decked out in a red-checkered flannel shirt.
Jeremy’s dad spent most of his time cuddled up to a bottle of Wild Turkey. There hadn’t been any rehabs or Hard Truths talks at his house, but I sensed that he craved restoration as much as I did. Sometimes we watched the movie together, neither of us saying anything about our lives or the movies triggered by this movie that still played in our heads—movies about love, and danger, and endings we wish came true.