Michael’s place had become familiar. But no more than that. Not home. Not mine. Moving in was out of the question. He wanted to know why, but how could I tell him he folded his towels all wrong, he bought brown eggs, he should have had a tablecloth.
Strangely, folded towels were part of what made it so lonely when we got to my aunt and uncle’s apartment in Brooklyn. Not that first night, of course. It was the next morning, when I had to wash my hair with shampoo that smelled like teabags. The night we moved in had been chaotic, rushed, bloody. We had to get away from my father, get my mom bandaged up. We had nowhere to go, except Aunt Peggy’s. “He’ll wind up killing her,” she said. She wanted Mom to leave him for good, but those kinds of plans require money, and there wasn’t any.
In the car, on the way to my aunt’s place, they were arguing with my mom about what she should do. I squirmed. It was hard to be with them when they argued like that. I closed my eyes, let their voices merge, tried not to be there. But I was wedged on someone’s lap in a crowded car. How did we fit so many people into it? My sister, June, was crying. My brother Eddie was on Aunt Peggy’s lap, wearing only one shoe. He’d thrown up, and the satin lapels of his little tuxedo were stained. My brother Jimmy’s wedding had ended in chaos, Daddy ringed by men to hold him back. Somebody had to stop him. That’s what the grownups in the car were saying. They couldn’t let him go on like that. He would have hurt someone. My mother was already hurt by then, but maybe that didn’t count.
Aunt Peggy was scolding my mother, insisting she couldn’t go home to him, not that night, not ever. We’d have to stay at Aunt Peggy’s, and my stomach ached from it, remembering the last time we wound up there. I didn’t want to sleep in a strange place, didn’t want to be without my books and my dolls. And what would Daddy do when he realized we hadn’t come home? He’d come after us like the last time, wouldn’t he? He could hurt us.
I prayed Mom would tell them to turn the car around, head back to our apartment. But she didn’t. A panicky tingling down the back of my legs made me desperate to get out of the car, to run, find my way home. Dad wasn’t always drunk, not really. Sometimes he told us stories. Just that morning he’d talked about being best man at his brother’s wedding, tying tin cans onto the back of his Oldsmobile. And sometimes he sang. He’d show us what to do with the song to make our voices blend, harmonizing, he called it. Maybe if they talked to him, made him understand, he wouldn’t hurt anybody anymore. I looked at my mother, who’d turned away from the window. The other eye was visible now, badly swollen, making the lid close, and I saw why we had no choice.
Eddie had to sleep with their toddler. To this day, he looks as if he’s defending himself against elbows and knees. I slept with my sister and my cousin in a bed that wasn’t big enough. I stayed as still as I could, listening to the kettle sing and teacups landing in their saucers, marking someone’s turn to speak. It’s scary when grown-ups whisper at night, especially about drinking and what to do next. They told my mother everything would be all right, but even I knew better than that. The closest thing we had to all right came only when my aunts visited. Zealous Catholics, they had my father convinced they could have him excommunicated, cut off from any chance of final forgiveness. The most he had once they arrived would be two beers, camouflaged in paper cups.
The pink towel would be mine, Aunt Peggy said. She showed me where she kept them. I saw right away they were folded wrong. I said nothing. I barely said a word for the whole three months we stayed there. Never objected. The butter was an unfamiliar brand and unsalted. Even the way they got it on the knife for their toast was strange. Instead of cutting off a little pat, they’d slide the knife along the bar, so that after a while it would sink in the middle like a swayback donkey.
Everything was different. Alien. They kept the milk in a pitcher. My hair began to smell like orange pekoe, like someone else’s. My cousin stuffed her dolls into a box, counting them every night, as if I might have a way to smuggle one out. We weren’t supposed to complain. That didn’t need to be said. I didn’t say much anyway. I was sure I wouldn’t be understood in this foreign place. Everything in it conformed to rules I’d never heard of. Surely I’d break one if I did anything that might be identified as my own idea.
After several weeks with no possibility of returning home, my mother enrolled us in the school nearby. It was huge, with wide winding halls dotted by identical doors that were never the right one. In the gray cement courtyard with its black iron railings you had to know your place. Cliques were rigid, and kids who knew the entry codes marked the peripheries with easy laughter triggered by privileged gossip. In class the lessons repeated things I’d learned already. But everything I’d memorized drained out of me, as if I had nowhere to hold it anymore. I knew nothing.
But one of my teachers had a lending library, and I’d tuck a paperback into my bookbag every few days. I read in the kitchen after dinner, after the dishes were washed and put away and everyone crowded into the living room to watch the Twilight Zone or Bonanza. There was a light over the table, and I’d dissolve into the stories. My uncle would smile at me when he came in for his hot milk, called me Page. “That’s good,” he said, “that you read.” I didn’t know what to say, so I nodded, because I knew my uncle didn’t really like to talk. With Aunt Peggy and my mom, he’d mainly nod, content to agree. He was the kind of man who had no strength for witnessing conflict or pain, especially children’s. Even removing a band-aid unnerved him. “You’re almost done with that one,” he said. I nodded again. As he looked at me, the creases in his brow deepened and he bit his lower lip the same way he did the night we arrived, as if my condition, my homelessness, was a puzzle to him, a thing that shouldn’t be. “There’s a guy I work with, always giving books away. Says his bookcase is going to topple over. Next time I’ll take them for you.”
“Thank you,” I said. And he smiled. He did bring me books sometimes after that, but they seemed new and I’ve always suspected he bought them.
That lending library was the only thing I missed about living in Brooklyn. When an apartment opened up in our old neighborhood in the Bronx, I was in the middle of Little Women. There was a big hurry about moving, and I never got a chance to return it. The new place was small, but it was ours. My mom bought us Lustre-Crème shampoo again. My school had a library, but the light was all wrong in the kitchen. It took a long while to finish Little Women. I had trouble believing any of it. Poverty with a glow. Everyone grateful for their blessings. No one questioning the way life can slap you around.
But I still have the book, my own library, really, overcrowded shelves in almost every room, although I rarely lend any books out. And it’s just as well I didn’t move in with Michael. We didn’t last. But it was my fault. I never gave him the entry codes.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.