I fled to Ohio
right before my 21st birthday. It was the best kind of escape I could manage after years of trying, finally leaving my parents’ hovel
to live with my boyfriend Jay, who had just graduated college with a degree in classics. I was teetering on the verge of something close to insanity
, having lived through very strange experiences with my family, working two jobs
to make no money and have no time, drinking quite heavily and doing stupid things to myself. Surviving on Corn Nuts
red pop, having acid flashback
. Never sleeping, eating the donuts from one job, then rushing into my green waitress
dress and running a mile and a half to work, where I was lucky to manage a free salad for myself. I would try to push my silly breasts up into a pleasing shape and smile and serve.
I felt like I was whoring myself, smiling for tips. Pretending to be really interested in all the people who needed something from me. At the pastry shop it was all old dudes and aged ladies, serving donuts and coffee and making proper low murmurs at the right moments, “Diverticulitis, oh my. Shingles? You poor poor dear, have some decaf.” Old people would ask for decaf as though it were a health food. That and a sympathetic smile were all I really had to offer, but they needed it. They needed to talk about their medications and gimpy legs and selfish middle aged children. I was the donut queen. And when they folded their nickel tip into my hand I would try to be gracious, Thanks, a few more of those and I can move out! Or get a car!
Then off again to squeeze into pantyhose and green polyester dress that cost fifty bucks, up front. Working at the 24 hour diner where the cook would call the waitresses “cunts” for any reason he could think of. He would scream that the shorthaired man planted that long black hair in his own food, all the while wiping his sweaty brow into the salad dressing tubs and flipping his greasy ponytail back and forth. His mother was one of the waitresses. She would often work with a black eye, always a gravelly rasp. She smoked me out in the bathroom one day but I could not work stoned. Then she got mad. I can’t pick up your flack she said, with a voice like a souped-up moped. She talked about me for the rest of the shift with the other waitress, the lady with a star tattoo on her face. The star was smallish and green, looked like the sort of thing a teenager might have done with a hot paperclip and bad lighting. Those women looked old as hell, used up, disappointed, pinched around the mouth. But by golly what waitresses. They could stack ten piping hot plates on their forearms without wincing or spilling anything. It was a sort of machismo thing. They would compare habits, “I musta smoked three packsa Kools this morning, trying to deal with my fuckin’ kid. Come home all busted up.” The cooks’ mom announced that she cleansed his wounds with some Crazy Eight and now he owes her. Together the waitresses would announce their plans to drink up the forty bucks they each had in tips. Somehow that was actually decent money, they made better tips than most. I never did well. I was far more attractive, having all my teeth and no gang marks on my face, but I was way too nice. They were efficient, but also kind of mean. If you needed more butter fine, but you’d better not ask for napkins or they might kick your ass in the parking lot.
In any case my life was going nowhere, and I was getting fucked up regularly, trying to pack some pain free living into my personal spaces. At first acid seemed like a cheap way to “trip a lot into a cram”, to make ugly parking lots seem encrusted with jewels. To make the woods, my only solace, seem like sensible chaos, built by an energetic genius. Walls were see-through and friends were warmer. My words far more intricate and meaningful. I was living in Technicolor, thinking myself drop dead gorgeous and tied down to the earth by the merest sliver. I was reinventing everything, living on empty calories and long distance sex, suddenly everything was alive and I was a flame on the edge of each moment. Chain-smoking and walking like I might fuck a stranger. Wearing the thickest black eyeliner I could pull off without looking silly to myself. Putting on a mask every day and then eventually falling asleep in it. Soon enough it would not come off.
I could not afford to move out. I did not have the kind of friends who wanted to live with me. I had already been on my own since the age of seventeen, when I filed for emancipation and left my parents in their dark little house with the haunted voices in the basement and creepy ghosts around every corner. I had endured about as much of their lifestyle as I could. I wanted to live in a house where people actually paid the electric bill. Where you could make a phone call without having to walk to the gas station, where people did not see the party store as a bank and one-stop shopping center. Where it was ok to open the windows or answer the door. I escaped, moved to Oregon, paid my own rent, and opened my own windows, basked in the miracle of my own electricity. But my boyfriend was a college student and he needed to study all the time and we were not getting along in his crappy two-room apartment. I moved in with a girl I had met at my illustrious Burger King job, where I announced the orders over a microphone, practicing sultry, “Double Whopper… extra cheese...HEAVY onion, no lettuce, Diet Coke”.
My roommate was going through a divorce as well as several other relationships, so she was hardly home. But somehow she managed to get us evicted. I discovered that she was smoking the cash I was giving her for my half of the rent. Who knew she was all about crank? Suddenly I had to move back home. I took a three-day bus trip and arrived back at the house I had originally fled during a blizzard, my mattress strapped to the top of a friend’s car. This time I was slinking back, jet-black hair, nose ring, a distinct feeling that I might kill myself just to get it over with. My parents were nice for about three minutes. After a year of that I was coming unraveled. Dumping large quantities of cheap ass vodka in Snapple and almost convulsing in my friend’s car. Not knowing how to handle it when people claimed to like me anyway. Blacking out regularly. (“I peed on Warren Ave? I made out with you? Are you sure it was me?”) Not being able to find the right combination of jobs to meet my parent’s perpetual rent hikes and still afford food, pot, cheap beer and savings. The panic attacks hit hard, in the nights I wasn’t working and could not find friends to come and get me, I would lie there and freak out.
One day Jay was done with school. He was living with his parents in Ohio. He asked me to please come down, he would get me. We would pack my shit into his car and I would go with him, get a job and pull myself up. His parents would rent me the spare room for twenty-five dollars a week. We could look for a better place, no rush.
So I found myself, living in Ohio with my boyfriend (now husband) and his very dear, very old, very conservative parents. Their house was, oddly enough, the exact same layout as the one I had left, except that it was cheery and bright and so clean I felt funny. They hugged me, welcomed me, made me a cake. There were no ghosts. They mowed their lawn. My room had bookshelves and a new bedspread. A fuzzy rug. The furniture matched. I was standing in it, looking around kind of stunned. The room was the same shape as the one I left behind, but looked like it had a makeover. Like I was dreaming and afraid to blink too long.
I looked up to find Jay’s mom, standing in the doorway, kind of frowny, looking worried. Oh no, she hates me. I saw my jet-black hair and nose ring through her seventy-year-old eyes. Please don’t tell me it’s already over, but I understand…
I noticed she was carrying an armload of black laundry, all mine. Folded neat and fresh smelling. My mother had not washed my laundry since I was really little. I was having one of those not in Kansas anymore moments.
With an absolutely endearing earnestness she looked up and sighed, arm outstretched, one black sock limp and dangling.
She was struggling for words. What is it? I asked, ready for a blow, expecting Move out, this won’t work, you are too weird.
She was near tears, thinking she had wrecked it all for me. “I pray to God I can find the other sock”.
Then I was consoling her, hugging her. She told me the bedspread was new. That she bought it for me. Did I like it? Were all my clothes so black? Because it meant a separate load. We have cake, she said. And we ate it too.