(Except It Is ALL About The Soup.)
Tales From a Crack Baby
“You think you’re an adult, over your arrested development, but that one day, back when you were 14, and your mom ruined your life, can sneak right back up and smack you in the face while simply ordering of a bowl of soup.”
Family fights. They are multi-layered and go way back. Way, way back. You think you’re an adult, over your arrested development, but that one day, back when you were 14, and your mom ruined your life, can sneak right back up and smack you in the face while simply ordering of a bowl of soup.
This past winter, I packed up my sun-bleached Los Angeles kids, husband, and mother and made the trek up the coast to the chilly Pacific Northwest to visit my brother over the winter holiday. Jeff, my “little brother,” was turning 35, and I love any opportunity for my kids to get to know their distant uncle.
My brother is anything but distant to my heart. Only 965 miles and 11 years of long distance living separates us. Like most children who come from divorce, we survived the tough times together. No one understands our childhood like the two of us. Jeff has been my confidant and best frenemy for most of my life. I hate him as much as I love him. He is a complete selfish prick; I am a narcissistic attention whore. I will take him down over the last sausage, and I will sacrifice my life to save his. We have nothing in common, except our familial ties. We don’t like the same TV shows, music, clothing, religion, or politics. But we do know how it feels to watch your mother beaten to a pulp by your step-dad. And that trumps agreeing on the world’s best band ever (which is most definitely the Beastie Boys and not The Offspring).
Our week-long vacation with the whole family is halfway over. Snowed in and forced to play charades and countless rounds of “Would you rather?” by the fireplace makes the group a bit antsy. A break in the blizzard frees us up to venture out for a much-needed sushi dinner at my brother’s favorite local spot. My mom asks the waitress about the Udon soup, “Is there any chance I can get the soup first, before the sushi? I’m so cold! I just need it to warm up.”
“Absolutely. I’m not sure how long it will take, but the soup will come before the sushi,” she cordially responds.
“Great. Then I’ll order a bowl of Udon soup. Thank you,” my mother reacts with graciousness, kindly passing the menu back to the waitress. This simple and pleasant transaction is complete. The soup is wanted only if it arrives before the sushi. We all get it. Except 20 minutes later, that is not how shit goes down. The sushi arrives; no sign of the soup. Just as the sushi has been inhaled, my mother politely calls the waitress over and gently says, “The Udon soup never came; I’d like to cancel the order.”
The waitress snaps, “I was about to bring it out. I can’t control the kitchen!”
My mom tries to explain, “I really only wanted it before the sushi.” The waitress storms away. My brother’s knuckles turn white as he clenches the edge of the table.
Two hours later, back at his house, my kids are fast asleep, and my brother, Jeff, can no longer contain what has been boiling inside of him. “Mom, you were completely rude to that waitress. You embarrassed me. You should have just taken the soup! You are classless.”
My mother looks at her son, bewildered. Unsure of where to begin, she gently defends the fact that she simply wanted the soup only if it came before the sushi. He continues to berate her. “That’s my favorite restaurant. I go there all the time! What’s wrong with you? You’re an idiot!” Jeff’s voice is shrill and sharp. My mother takes a deep breath, “Jeff, I don’t think this is about the soup. Is there something else going on that you would like to talk about?”
“No! This is about the soup!”
“It’s not about the soup.”
“It’s all about the soup!”
They both turn to me. Forced into mediator as the only person who knows what this is really about, I take a deep breath. Let’s rewind…
1995. Lance Ito is calmly watching OJ smirk his way through a murder trial, and Hootie and the Blowfish is at the top of the charts. At 18, I pack up my worn out pom poms (and my brand new bong) and leave my brother, my mom, and her husband, Larry. I say good riddance to my “family” and to my boring, stereotypical, upper-middle class, white, 2.5 bath home. I make the trek up the coast to captain the cheer team at UC Davis. Jeff is 14 and will have the run of the house as I begin college, and he begins high school. He is happy to see me go, I assume. He never said good-bye. I am ready to leave the nest, or “The Cave,” as Plato will explain in my philosophy 101 seminar that meets every Wednesday and Friday at 8:00AM. Plato’s theory, as my schwag soaked brain understood it, was that my whole childhood had been spent staring at dancing shadows, an image created by a fire flickering behind me, that was portrayed onto a wall in a cave. What I thought was reality was only an illusion made of shadows. The truth will be found outside of the cave, and I am ready to emerge from my cave, see the real fire, and ditch the shadows! I am officially grown-up.
Meanwhile, back home, a few months into our freshman year, my lawyer step-dad, Larry, has a severe nervous breakdown. His tendency to cheat on my mother and abuse alcohol segues into a darker place than usual; he suddenly finds himself sleeping with a teenage prostitute that suspiciously resembles me. Oh, and he picked up the teenage whore’s crack addiction. Scary Larry’s newfound love for crack cocaine is devastating to my mother. Her “normal” high functioning life is shattered, and she doesn’t know how to pick up the millions of jagged pieces. She is alone and desperate. Her depression is fast and furious, and, just like that, she decides to give the ‘ol crack pipe a try. Just one hit takes away all her pain.
My mom and Scary Larry become completely addicted. They’re heavy users; Danny Boyle should make a movie about them. And Jeff is home alone to deal with the brunt of it. While I am busy decorating my dorm room walls with Trainspotting posters and dissecting Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Jeff is living in a crack house with gangsters, convicts, and a mom that has completely abandoned him. Home cooked meals served nightly at 6pm are a distant memory. The refrigerator is empty, except for a few old ketchup bottles. Roses that Scary Larry had given my mom months ago are wilted, rock hard, and dark black. Those death flowers will remain as our dining table centerpiece for years to come. The windows are covered in thick blankets and towels to shield out the smallest ray of sunshine.
Scary Larry had to close his law office, so he unloads his 14 work computers in various corners of our house. Each computer is on 24 hours a day, every monitor filled with porn. Opened and used boxes of sex toys and massage oils are strewn about. Burnt spoons litter the countertops. Boxes of baking soda and copper scouring pads are the only things left on the weekly shopping list.
No one calls me at school to tell me what is going on. There is no warning. I fly home, successfully completing my freshman year. I step out of my taxi (for some reason my mom couldn’t pick me up at the airport), dragging the Hefty garbage bag I’ve designated as luggage and lightly bounce into my house. Darkness consumes me. After navigating through the maze of porn my step-dad created, I discover my 80 pound mother covered head to toe in puss-filled sores she hand picked with a pair of tweezers (google coke bugs) and my little brother hidden in his bunk bed sleeping with a wooden bat. Scary Larry is speaking in gibberish and living in a deep hole he constructed in the garage made out of law books, cardboard boxes, and his favorite girly magazines: Barely Legal and Hustler. I see a new existence… out of the cave. My childhood disappears in that moment. I guess I’m a grown-up now.
And that’s how we live. That becomes our reality. Jeff and I survive on coffee and cigarettes while the world goes on around us. We navigate our new life together. I can’t leave him alone again, so I drop out of college and move back into my 2.5 bath, 3 bedroom, one crack den home. Our friends buy dresses and tuxes for dances, pledge sororities and fraternities, and go to Mexico for spring break while we watch our mom slowly fade away. I transfer to a local university and continue my studies. I bury myself in books and new friends and never let on what is going on at home.
Time rolls on. I miss my mom. Terribly. I’m too scared to cry, worried that if I let one tear out, I’ll never be able to stop the stream. Jeff, well, I’m not sure. He checked out at some point that freshman year. He claims to enjoy the parentless lifestyle: never needing to go to school, shoplifting gifts for his girlfriends, having to report to no one. He claims these are the best years of his life. Jeff’s senior year comes to a close, and he informs me he is not eligible to graduate. It is time for a heart-to-heart, crack baby to crack baby.
“After navigating through the maze of porn my step-dad created, I discover my 80 pound mother covered head to toe in puss-filled sores she hand picked with a pair of tweezers (google coke bugs) and my little brother hidden in his bunk bed sleeping with a wooden bat.”
Jeff and I discuss how much we both want to show our mom how much she is hurting us. We imagine the perfect payback: We turn into drug addicts ourselves, living in the streets, hungry and poverty stricken. Years from now, our paths cross with our mom in a dirty alley. We look her in the eyes and say, “You did this to me.” And in that moment, we’ll be able to finally get through to her. It is a dark, romantic vision. But I’m not sure we’ll be able to time out the whole meeting in a dirty alley thing, so instead I convince Jeff to go to a city college, eventually transfer to a university, and make the best of his life, despite the cards he’s been dealt. He obliges. He eventually goes on to earn a Masters degree from USC. (Take that crack mom!)
During Jeff’s college years, our mother and Scary Larry miraculously sober up: an unusual turn of events for crack addicts. But instead of running into their open arms, Jeff and I retreat. The anger that has accumulated over the years is thick and palpable. Slowly, over time, I reconnect with my mom (once she finally divorces Scary Larry, and he runs off to China to find a concubine). After countless nights of questioning, sobbing, and screaming, I begin to love and trust her as deeply as I did before. At 24, Jeff runs away to Portland, Oregon to start a new life, full of personal and professional success, never once confronting our mom about what happened so long ago. Until the day she ordered that Udon soup…
“It’s not about the soup,” my mother insists.
“It’s all about the soup!” my brother barks.
Tears well up in my eyes. “Jeff. Mom. Forget the soup. The waitress fucked up and was totally a bitch. And the sushi was mediocre at best. No offense, Jeff. Maybe it’s time you two finally talk about what happened twenty years ago.” They reluctantly agree.
Jeff begins, “Mom, I don’t know if you remember this day. It was many months after you started using crack. I woke up early one morning and decided I wasn’t going to school. Again. Strangely no one was home but you and me. And I heard you faintly calling my name.”
My mother is staring down into her lap. Her long brown hair completely hiding her face. I can tell she is silently sobbing. Jeff continues, “‘Jeffrey! Jeffrey!’ I heard you squeeze out. Shocked that you were calling me, I made my way down the hall to your room. We hadn’t spoken in weeks. The door, which had been locked for months, was, oddly, unlocked. I opened it cautiously. You were curled up in your bed, hidden under heavy blankets. Like a frail, malnourished baby. I came to your side. ‘Jeffrey,’ you whimpered, ‘I need help. I’m sick. I’m dying. Can you go two blocks down the street and get me some soup?’”
Tears are pouring down my face as I clearly see Jeff’s memory. My mother can hardly breathe. It is about the soup. It’s always been about the soup.
Jeff finishes, “I stood there. Staring at you. I could see how weak you were. Not able to move. Not able to save yourself. You begged me to help you. Over and over. It was the first time you needed me. For months I had needed you. For months I missed you. And you left me. Left me alone. To take care of myself. Now you needed me. And I knew I could finally show you how it felt to be abandoned. So, I simply said, ‘No.’ And I went back to my room. I stayed there all day. Knowing you were slowly dying in your bed. I felt guilt. But not enough to go and get you the soup. I just couldn’t do it.”
I see the fourteen year old boy inside my thirty-five year old brother. He’s been holding this story in for over two decades. I see my mother, curled into a little ball. Just as he had described her in the story. Her body shakes violently. She mumbles, almost inaudibly, “I remember that day… and I don’t blame you. I don’t blame you for walking away.”
My heart breaks into a million jagged pieces. My mom is devastated. She owns the moment. Reliving her greatest fall. Jeff stares at her coolly as she throbs with grief. She mutters to her child, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I did that to you.”
Honestly, I don’t know what happened next. The pain was too much. I tapped into a space I hadn’t been in for so long. I think they hugged. I’m not quite sure. Moments, or maybe hours, passed, and I was in bed, trying to fall asleep. The white snow gently fluttering outside my window. I curled up into my own small ball and stared at the fire that was slowly flickering before me. It cast dancing shadows above my bed. I finally see the truth. Is this what it means to be a grown-up?
For more information on Nicole Blaine or to see her perform stand-up: www.NicoleBlaine.com