Today was the day. The one she had been longing for yet had long tried to avert. The morning felt defined by the white mantle of fog hovering over and soon hiding the Bastion Bridge. Anna sensed it through the cracked living room window. Its illusory weight, its cloying dampness finding skin as if she hadn’t dried off after her bath, nor clothed herself properly to meet the day. She’d watched from her window all morning as microscopic droplets doubled and rolled over the river’s mighty current. It’s amorphous mass descended upon the city while she sweated then lightly shivered, removing her rose sweater, then putting it back on.
Anna fingered its worn softness, smoothed fading red roses that bloomed against a nubby white background. It was ridiculous that she chose to wear this, as if he would even remember it, or the scattering of flowers in the courtyard of Mistral Manor. But back then he’d loved the bright buds that unfurled in spring warmth and light, soft to fingertips, sweet to nose. Later when showy blossoms drooped and fell apart, they gathered fallen petals, tossed them about.
Anna had banished Mistral Manor years from her mind for as long as she could. She had moved five times since then, the last one a return to this city where she had became a mother twenty-four years ago. But Stephen’s voice bleated in her ear as if standing over her shoulder as he used to do.
“A mother? That’s what you think you are? You gave birth because there was no choice at that point! Five years you had a chance to prove yourself and for nearly five years you failed more than you succeeded, wouldn’t you agree? I use that word erroneously–succeeding means meeting goals, something you barely managed.”
Anna squeezed her eyes shut, shook her head. As if that would get rid of him. He’d lodged himself in a far-off corner of her brain but could still come forward if she wasn’t on guard. Stephen had always commanded her attention; he was an influential man. Before she knew it he was on his way to the city council, was a good businessman, poised to be counted as a country club member, a toaster of illustrious people and keynote speaker–well, who knew what else since she’d had to last look at him.
That had been in court. When he took her son from her. That was after he threw her out, after the divorce was begun. After she had been publicly humilated as he refused her further access to his life, even to acknowledge her when he was on the street with their son in tow and she asked him to please let her hold Sam once more.
Of course she was a real mother, one who raised her son, often alone, who read to him, rocked him, wiped cool his fevered body, taught him his ABCs and to count things and color in pretty designs she drew for him, tie his shoes and all the rest. But no one believed her enough, not over Stephen’s word, his attorney’s clout. She had an increasing social and medical problem, too many stiff drinks that spoiled the mix. That was the often hidden but chronic issue.
“You’re an alkie in the making, Anna. You can’t truly help yourself yet, I’m not without insight. But not having control causes absolute havoc in Sam’s life, in mine. I’m done with it all. With you. You cannot, will not have Sam or me on minute longer.”
This took over their weekly conversations after three years, after her bouts with therapy, after their fights, after Sam had started to walk, talk, get into mischief and fight the tense grip of their dire discontent.
She knew she might be on an unmarked path to nowhere when they first occupied the two bedroom at Mistral Manor. She liked it there, its old-fashioned charms and friendliness but she still dragged herself from each morning ’til night. Poured a dab of whiskey into her first mugs of coffee, then went to get Sam. It wasn’t as if she didn’t take care of him, coo at him, show him the world. They had good adventures, Sam bouncing about in the carrier strapped to her, heading out to a park or the zoo or “baby and mom yoga” classes. As he grew she did, too, as a person and a mother, even developing a knack for forecasting his needs or wishes before he did. But she railed against her small, isolated life even though she loved her son. She dreamed of strange places and people in the restless nights and woke up confused. She woke up half-angry.
“Sam! You cannot raid the cookie jar when dinner will be started shortly. Get down from the step stool!–wait, let me help.”
Sam looked up, deep brown eyes round as two fine buttons but a frown gathered as he stuffed fingers into his mouth. He was trying not to cry, not to bellow. She knew that he knew this could make her lose patience. And she’d drink a little more. At three and four he was paying better attention to her moods and actions, too.
“I’ll get you sweet red grapes, then we’ll read your favorite book on the couch. We could make a fire if the rain keeps up! Wouldn’t Daddy like that, too, when he gets home?”
His fingers stayed put but he smiled, tears glistening and vanishing. So quick to feel then move on, Anna admired that in children. His cheeks pinked up and he glowed as he smiled. It was enough to turn her into jelly. Thank goodness, a big fuss averted. She rewarded herself with a decent glass of wine though it was just three p.m. The story, oft-read and memorized, was less boring with a drink. Sam cuddled up.
Was Stephen ever there? For late dinners or one day a week-end, if lucky. When he wasn’t ramping up his classic car restoration business, he was developing a political presence. He cared for Sam more easily than did Anna. He was nearly cavalier when she felt anxious; he was undaunted where she faltered. Stephen was proud of his son, pleased to be a father yet Anna felt it also one more thing checked off his agenda.
He hadn’t actually intended on marrying Anna, however. They had dated for a year. He found her smart and enticing, easy to outshine; she was supportive which mattered most. But then she became pregnant and he was seeking entree into the right circles.
She found herself thinking of him akin to a mountain goat–he was so sure footed, fearless and adaptable and nothing stopped him. The similarity was further appropriate when he grew the beard, trim with salt and pepper. The women who passed his way found it–and him–attractive. She was repelled by its scratchy dominance when they drew close. She longed for lighter times.
Anna pulled her sweater close, folded her arms before her chest, hands stuck under her armpits. She had forgotten the damp could chill so deeply. The fog wasn’t moving much yet. Often it dissipated by noon; it was only nine-fifty. She had another hour to wait. She set to work on the flowers she had picked up. The bronze dahlias, ferns, white carnations and two half-opened yellow roses was not the most elegant mix but she liked what diverted the eye and mind.
She’d realized after her second rehab stint that she loved visual art. In treatment she’d found some peace during occupational therapy–as if they were doing accountable work. But whether sketching other patients, piecing tinted cellophane and paper to create fake stained glass designs or beading a bracelet or necklace–it gave her satisfaction, calmed the terrible craving for just one more drink, took her mind to far better places.
But Anna drifted again, drank and rehabbed, worked in retail, then a comnunity college office and later medical adminstration and drank more when she could and tried in vain to see her son more. It took another stab at sobriety before she returned to school, became a jeweler, and worked hard at what enchanted and challenged her.
She’d finally returned to the city where grief had taken root after connecting with another jeweler online who wanted to go into business with her. Tandy had skill with gems and stones, Anna with gold and silver. They had met twice. It seemed it might work; Tandy already had a small brick and mortar business going. She appreciated Anna’s innovative designs.
Tandy didn’t drink for health reasons; a no alcohol or drugs policy was part of the deal. Anna had told her only that she’d drunk more than was wise and it had gotten old so she just quit. She suspected she might have to get honest one day. If things worked out. They’d signed papers yesterday making the partnership official. Tomorrow she’d join her at the second floor studio. If she told her too complete a truth too soon she might lose her chance.
There had finally come that moment of reckoning that changed everything for Anna and her family.
It was a balmy Saturday night and they’d had dinner out with work friends of Stephen’s. The babysitter was driven home as Anna changed from a pale blue linen sheath into sweats and a t-shirt. She needed one more drink before bedtime. Sleep had eluded her lately. Another drink would keep the urge at bay when she work up with a start in the middle of the night. Then she’d had to get up, sneak about to get a bottle in the creaky darkness. Stephen sometimes caught her and threatened to leave her but he hadn’t. Yet.
She grabbed a heavy glass decanter from the antique trolley and a large goblet, poured brandy to the brim. It was so tasty and warm on the tongue that she drank it fast, poured another. The room began to blur and sway. She’d had drinks at the restaurant, maybe three or four before Stephen nudged her foot with his. His eyes had clouded when she’d laughed, nudged him back.
But she liked this familiar sensation, she longed for this moment as everything melded into one, when her consciousness morphed into a sleepwalking state and she felt the hum and tingle of alcohol fill her blood and brain. It was bliss not having anyone scold her, not feeling scrutinized, not being told to grow up and take charge–as if she was the commander of her fate, what were they talking about? They were all full of hot air. At least she wasn’t deluded, she thought. At least she wasn’t faking how grand it all was.
Even if he found her waltzing about with a pillow-partner pressed to her chest , signing off-key at the top of her lungs, then harangued and wrestled her into bed before she was done–who cared? If he found her slumped in the armchiar at two in the morning with eau de whiskey filling the air and a late fire smoldering–who cared? That was what she loved about drinking. She stopped being vigilant, didn’t worry so much how unskilled in the kitchen or bed or his social circles she was, how little he loved her. How she didn’t like that she was to be a mother who’d make certain her son graduated from Harvard. He was just a little boy. He was just wanting to be hugged and taught and set free to explore. She was only a person who was sometimes on target, smart enough, pretty as he liked. And at times terribly scared and lost.
So when Sam came to the top of the stairwell and gazed down on her as she floated across the entryway singing, she wriggled all ten fingers at him, forgetting the glass. It slipped out of her hand and smashed on the tile floor and she didn’t much care. She told him to get back in bed, Mommy was busy and Daddy was gone. Then he sat on the top step, lopsided with sleepiness. Anna wasn’t alarmed. She dropped over the bottom step and smiled, then shouted up at him.
“How’s my little big boy? You have a nice time with Barbra the babysitter? Eat your crackers with cheese before bed? Okay now back to your little bed!”
Sam rubbed his sleep-knotted hair. “What’s wrong, Mama? Foot’s all messy red….” He pointed at it, reached for her, wavering on the step.
“Stay put, puddin’, well oh blast, I musta cut it, don’t worry no pain Sammy boy. Go to sleep now…Mommy’s tired, too…”
But Sam was slipping down the stairs on his rear end, trying fast to get to his mother whose head fell against the wall. And that sliced foot leaking crimson all over beige carpet. He sat next to her, puzzled and worried by the ugly foot his mother ignored. He slipped down to the main floor, ran to the kitchen, climbed the stool, grabbed a paper towel roll which unwound behind him as he raced back. He squashed several sheets on top the gaping wounds and she flinched a little.
Stephen came home, took one look and grabbed his son. He cursorily examined her foot, which would require nine stitches.
“He’s barely five years old, Anna, how could you keep at it like that? How could you allow danger to occur–to him, to us? You’re nothing but a lousy drunk!”
She had trouble recalling any of it, but put things together from bits and pieces her husband recounted repeatedly. What her son mumbled, looking up at her teary face with leery eyes. But Sam still loved her, his arms grasping her neck the next day, refusing to let go for a long time. It agonized her to feel his fear and adoration, to have to admit she become a disastrous mother.
When Stephen filed for divorce and physical and legal custody, she barely felt she could argue. She was not given permission to see her son unless supervised and sober. And so, she rarely did, only Sam’s birthday and various holidays. The occasional week-end if she lived close enough to travel to the new house, that lovely Craftsman on Hawthorne she would never enter. If she wasn’t drunk or in rehab or working extra hours to get by she called him every couple of months but by fourteen Sam didn’t return her calls often. She didn;t blame him. She had felt it was the price exacted for her failure to be well and whole.
Nineteen years ago since the divorce. Five since he had last agreed to speak with her. Anna put the tea kettle on and set two mugs on the circular table. She didn’t know if he was coming or what he would say. If they could even get past any of it. If he would allow her to ask for forgiveness. How could she tell him how much she regretted? It made no difference. It happened that way it had. She had become alcoholic. Stephen and Sam were there to watch it gain full possession of her, to deeply damage the good they had shared. But the worst of it was how much she hated herself for so long. The shame that burned her up inside until she felt reduced to sooty ash and wished for a terrible wind to dispell her presence in life.
She’d had a long, difficult healing. She worried about her son every day and knew it meant little to nothing, that the time to worry might be passed; it might well be too late for anything more. Healing didn’t feel completed.
The tea kettle whistled and she grabbed it and poured hot water over a Chai Spice tea bag. It floated a bit, tried to sink, and she breathed in the redolence of it. Her hands were shaking so the mug sat there and she with it, watching the clock and the fog, which was easing itself into the atmosphere, shredding into fine tendrils, wafting across the river and above the hills that undulated into mountain peaks. The light streamed through the moist air and reached her building. It did not fail to enter the rooms where Anna now lived but she was blind to it, prayed with head in hands.
When her doorbell chimed she resisted the urge to jump up and race to it. She walked to the door amid a second chiming and her palm reached the handle. Hesitated. It felt as if her heart might pound out of her and then she’d die.
She opened wide the door, hands pressed over chest.
He was tall but not so tall he loomed over her, his hair brown with golden highlights like hers and it fell about his forehead as if the wind had tussled with it. His eyes, his eyes, the deep brown she’d rightly recalled as a rich walnut, and roiling with inquisitiveness. With life. He waited; she just stared back. His hand rose toward her.
“Sam,” she whispered, moving one step forward, holding onto years of unused tears–not now, not in front of him yet.
He took her hand into his. “Mother… you really have come to live here, then…?”
Their finding ways around and toward each other wasn’t swift and clean and smooth, it was jumpy and hard, taut with unknowns. A strained laughter felt as relief after decades of uncertainty. Swamped by a past he could barely recall and which for her was only a fist full of dimming memories. But they did face each other as tea was shared, then sandwiches. They agreed to keep trying to talk it through this way and that, anger and all. As they kept on, they were given a common language shaped of need and hope. They spoke of what they knew about themselves and didn’t know for sure. They said the words near the end, awkward with surprise, close to being kind: “Mom” and “My son.”
Time carried them along as the sunlight ripened, spilled its bounty onto their opening hands, over small bridges of words. Into the spareness of a November afternoon that had grown fragrant with flowers.