To Love and To Fall

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SEVEN

After we leave the detox, Denise and I go to a diner to have something to eat. The restaurant is dark, with rich brown paneling that did not allow for much light through its windows. I feel like I am in a bar. The last time I visited Denise, this place was non-existent, in its place acres and acres of overgrown weeds. I muse how civilization destroys nature as I greedily order a bacon cheeseburger with mushrooms and fries with a cola; too early for beer, I decide. Denise orders fried chicken with a vanilla shake. She has never been the type of woman who is incessantly on a diet. Nor does she need one.

“So, what do you think,” she begins as the server presents us with our beverages.

“About what?” I ask, though I have a good idea of what she means.

“About this whole rehab thing. Do you think it will be good for Serena?”

I shrug. “You tell me. You’re the expert.”

She gives me a level look over her drink, one that she reserves for disagreeable business clients and errant little brothers. “I’m no expert. I’m not God. I’m just a recovering drunk.”

“You mean you’re not the president, just a client.”

She doesn’t laugh.

“Joke. Hah-hah,” I encourage.

“Hah-hah,” she counters without a trace of humor. She is still waiting for an answer to her original question. I am still getting the disagreeable business client look. Or the errant little brother look, whichever.

I shrug again. “I don’t know what to make of these rehab places. They seem like a big marketing ploy. I mean, look at you. You didn’t need to go to one. Do you think that Serena’s any worse off than you were?”

Denise hesitates. “Honestly?” I am not sure if I want to hear ‘honestly’. I wonder if we are marching back into old battlegrounds of the Continuing Saga of the Ciselli-Hauser War. But I sense no animosity in Denise’s expression, so I let her continue. “I think she is. Serena is a depressive type of drunk. When she called me, she said she wanted to die.” I squirm. I remember going through binges like that with Serena, keeping a constant vigilance on her in case she decided to do something crazy. Denise seemingly mistakes my uncomfortability for alarm. “Don’t worry. She didn’t do anything to harm herself other than the binge drinking. What I meant was that her drinking has brought her to a deeper emotional low than I ever experienced. Maybe that’s why she’s going in of her own volition. I sure wouldn’t have if no one made me.” Denise’s original foray to AA was mandated by court when she got arrested for DUI. She and Nigel were driving back from their wedding reception, a strange omen for a marriage. Sometimes I wish it had been Nigel behind the wheel, because then maybe I wouldn’t be dealing with his snobbish London attitude. As Denise pauses, my mind drifts for a second. I imagine Nigel being behind those bars instead of Denise, and am startled when I realize the image matched that of my father’s. My father was a happy drunk, just like Nigel. My father used to bartend his major bashes, Nigel owns the establishment that he bartends for others’ bashes. I never quite made that connection before-Denise has married our father. I wonder if I have been sleeping with our mother.

“I went to the grave the other day,” Denise says, uncannily picking up my vibes. This happens so frequently between us that it fails to shock me anymore.

“Why did you do that?”

Denise raises her eyebrows diffidently. “I guess I felt well enough to see them without wanting to kick Dad’s grave over.”

“Or Mom’s,” I add.

She gives an imperceptible nod. “I still hate them,” she admits.

“They’re not even worth that. It gives them too much power.”

She shrugs. “What can I say? They were my parents. I’ve always wanted to love them. But I can’t, so I hate them instead. It’s the opposite side of the coin, but at least it’s the same coin.”

I say nothing. I have nothing to say. I hardly ever think of the con and coward that gave me life and my name. I don’t even think of them as Mom and Dad. That would imply there was some kind of parental love or responsibility, and I never knew that from them. Denise had been my mother, father and sister all wrapped in one. I wonder who took care of her. Maybe that is why she keeps switching men, looking for the perfect parent to take care of her. I gave up looking for anyone to take care of me a long time ago.

I steer the conversation away from the likes of rehabs and morbidity. We speak of Reincroft and Arbuckle, my upcoming life. She tells me about her work, how Nigel is still pressuring her to have kids. She doesn’t want any. She says that her biological clock must have come with dead batteries. I know what she really means. She and I want to stop a lineage that shouldn’t have been in the first place.

That night I sleep on the couch in Denise’s living room, a firm brown leather thing that has been a fixture of the house as long as she has been living here. Whenever I sleep on it, I feel as though I’m the proverbial patient in the psychiatrist’s office. I am tired, but have to wait for Nigel and Denise to vacate the area before I can get any sleep. Nigel keeps blabbing on and on about God knows what, and by nine-thirty I want to kill him. Just when I begin to regret not staying at Owl Motor, Nigel excuses himself and goes to his bedroom. Denise stays with me until Ally McBeal is over before she leaves as well, giving me a quick kiss on the forehead before she exits. Just like she did when I was a kid. Then she is gone. Finally, I have peace and quiet.

I glance at my surroundings in the pale moonlit light. There are photographs everywhere, mostly of Nigel’s family. His family might be crazy, but not as crazy as mine, and at least they say that they love him every so often, which is more than you could have ever said about mine. I see several pictures of me, mostly without Serena, pictures of my graduation from high school and college, and a single photo of each of her ex-husbands, one of Jerome, her first husband, when they traveled around the country in a beat-up van, him with his Afro, she with hair down to her knees, back when Denise did everything to rebel against who she was. And one of Donald, the man I never met and never wanted to meet, because anyone who lay a hand on my sister was my enemy. Denise and I never spoke during that time. She fell into her worst drinking at that time, and she met Nigel soon after her second divorce at the bar he owned. At three years of marriage, Nigel has lasted the longest.

There is only one picture of our parents. It is a picture of the wedding day in nineteen sixty-three. It seems so antiquated and unreal that it looks like a cartoon. How significant that analogy is, for their marriage certainly seemed like a joke to me.

I remember little of my father other than the parties and the violence. My father would use any excuse to throw a wild party and invite everyone to get plastered at it. People came from all over the neighborhood to get drunk at my father’s parties. I never recall a moment’s peace in my household. I hated it, much for the noise itself as because of the fear of what would happen afterwards, once the party was over, when we would be alone with a father who had drank too much.

I was ten when my life changed forever. Denise had just been emancipated by the courts at the tender age of sixteen; the legal system thought the big bad world was safer for my sister than my family. I was just about to go into the system myself, when the system came looking for me. One particular day at three in the morning, the doorbell rang. I was the one who answered it because my mother was passed out, I was the one who saw the blue uniforms with no one to protect me, I was the one who shook my mother to wake her, vainly looking to her for refuge but getting none, the last of times that I would be with her that way. She never woke up that night. The uniforms put her limp body in the back seat of the patrol car, and one of the cops gave up his seat in the front so I could be protected from seeing the mother that was about to be booked for child negligence. I was driven to the jail where my father, the original reason why the uniforms came to my home, was booked. And I saw my father, my drunken, violent father, the happy drunk gone sour, screaming through bars like a caged animal wanting desperately to be free, vainly pushing against them; angered at something that was not bending to his will on demand. I was grateful for the bars that separated us.

I was later to learn that my father had been involved in a bar fight. Not the typical one that was cheerfully laughed of with a round of beers for all. No, this time my father had to go out and kill someone. My father, the murderer. He had done his son proud.

I was placed with a local church family, the MacDonalds. The justice system deemed it fit that my father lose his freedom temporarily and that my mother should lose me permanently. Being sixteen and still in high school herself, Denise was considered to young to be my permanent guardian, so the MacDonalds retained custody of me, the Christian thing to do, I suppose. The whole trial was a joke. My mother was a pathetic slob, pleading not to send her husband to jail, her Charlie would never do anything like kill someone. And she was such a good mother. So what if she got a little drunk. Who wouldn’t drink if her daughter deserted her. Everyone in the town was out to get her. My mother’s antics disgusted me, even at the young age I was. I did not want her near me. The last time I saw her, I told her I hated her. I was eleven then. She cried, and never saw me again, and never tried to. She and my father were dead less than two years later. In an act of poetic justice, my father was killed in a jail brawl. My mother was obviously unable to live without the promise of his abusive love, for she killed herself two months later with a handgun bought to protect against intruder. The only intruder wound up being on the inside. She grieved more over her drunken murderer of a husband than the estrangement of her two children.

Denise became my guardian after my parents died. She was almost nineteen then, legal to drink though she’d been at it for years. It was a relief to be with the one person I could trust. The MacDonalds were more than happy to get rid of me, for I had become a blemish to their Christian sanctified home. I was never beaten physically as I had been with my parents, but I never felt the love of the God that the MacDonalds were so bent on preaching to others. I felt like nothing more than a brownie point to Heaven. If that was what their God was about, I didn’t want any part of Him.

I play a staring game with the wedding picture, anger burning more and more into me as the picture gains its edge on me. I finally knock it over with my foot, but it has been etched into my mind. False smiles, false dreams. I fall asleep remembering what I would rather forget.

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