Back when my sister and I were in high school, we hatched a plan to get our mom to quit drinking once and for all. My sister, Christy, was a senior and could drive, and I was a sophomore. Our dad was in Los Premios, a beach town up north, “staying with friends.” Needless to say, it was a rough time in my parent’s marriage. They’d been struggling financially, and my mom’s drinking was progressing rapidly. Prior to his little trip up north, they’d been fighting every night. She’d beg my father to get a job, and he’d answer with, “How am I supposed to get a job when you’re drunk all the time?” Her response: “If you’d get a job, I wouldn’t drink.” Stalemate.
Mom’s cocktail hour kept getting earlier. It started at six, while she made dinner, then went to five o’clock because of traffic. “It was unbearable,” she’d say as she’d sit down with a screwdriver. Then after she’d lost her job, it became four o’clock because she needed to “wind down.” After a while, the drinking started when we’d get home from school because she needed a “break from all you teenagers.” Eventually, we discovered she was getting drunk after lunch. Her explanation was that she needed to relax and that she didn’t do it every day. “It’s not like I’m some bum on the street,” she’d say. What started out to be “Teeny-Time” at a respectable cocktail hour got earlier and earlier until the day came when I found her in the kitchen making a bloody Mary just after breakfast.
I made myself a bowl of cereal. She tore off a stalk of celery and put it in a glass filled to the brim with vodka. She looked at me, daring me to say something, then poured in a splash of tomato juice. Together we watched the juice descend in clouds and swirls into the clear booze.
“That Bloody Mary’s a rather light shade of pink, wouldn’t you say?” I said.
“Oh, piffle. It’s the breakfast of champions. This is how I get my vegetables.” She bit off a piece of celery.
I grumbled and left the kitchen with my bowl of cereal and went into Christy’s room where we solidified our plan.
That night, before our mother had a chance to get dinner on, we cornered her in the kitchen. Christy said, “Mom, Sadie and I want to take you to dinner.”
She looked at us with skepticism and took a drag off her cigarette. “What’s the occasion?” She exhaled smoke through her nose and watched it waft out the kitchen window.
“We love you. That’s the occasion,” said Christy.
“Yeah. We love you,” I said. “You’re going through a rough time with Dad gone, so we’ve saved up our allowance and want to take you to dinner.”
“We heard a can of hairspray clunk in the sink. “Whoop,” she said, followed by nonstop hair spraying, then more clunking and clacking sounds of cosmetics being opened, used, and dropped in the sink.”
Mom struggled to keep us in focus, then smiled. She couldn’t believe we wanted to do something nice for her. A part of me hoped she’d catch on, then the long ash of her cigarette dropped onto the floor, and I didn’t care anymore. She went to tap it out in the ashtray on the windowsill, but swerved into the sink and dropped it. It sizzled in the sudsy water. She took a deep breath and smoothed her hair, then took careful steps out of the kitchen. We watched her totter down the hallway to the bathroom and lock the door. We heard a can of hairspray clunk in the sink. “Whoop,” she said, followed by nonstop hair spraying, then more clunking and clacking sounds of cosmetics being opened, used, and dropped in the sink. A few minutes later, she stepped out, hair stiff, red lipstick on. “Well,” she said, “what are we waiting for? I haven’t had a good meal in weeks.”
Christy and I couldn’t look at each other without giggling, but it wasn’t a happy giggle. We were nervous. Christy’s hands shook when she pulled her purse off the coatrack. I felt bad about our plan. It was a sneaky thing to do, and it didn’t help that it was cold and raining outside. It gave the whole thing a sinister vibe.
“Come on, girls,” Mom said as she put on her raincoat, the kind flashers wore. She tied the belt instead of buckling it. “Where are we going?”
I looked at Christy. She squinted—don’t tell, or I’ll kill you. I nodded. I understood. Our mother had fallen for it. We put on our jackets and walked out.
Mom had forty feet left before she was in the car. She stopped. My heart sank. “Mom,” I said. “We’ve got to go. We’ve got reservations. We’re going out for a delicious dinner. That’s all we’re doing. Hey, can’t a couple of teenagers take their mother out to dinner?”
“Wait a minute,” Mom said, then turned around and went back inside.
Christy and I watched her shut the front door before we spoke. “She knows,” I hissed. “She’s not buying it. She’s not going to get in the car. I know it.”
“You’re wrong, but you’re blathering on and acting so weird, you’re going to make her suspicious,” Christy said. “She forgot something. She’ll be back.”
The front door slam startled us. Mom came out holding an opened magazine over her head. “I can’t find my umbrella,” she said.
I’d been so focused on getting her in the car that I hadn’t noticed the rain. It had soaked through my shirt. I was shivering.
“Hurry,” Christy said, while running around to the driver’s side. “It’s starting to pour.”
“Don’t just stand there with your mouth open, Sadie,” Mom said. “Get in the car.”
I didn’t mind getting wet. I deserved it. I opened the passenger door for her. She got in. I got in the back. We drove off.
“This is exciting,” Mom said. We didn’t respond. “Where are we going? The suspense is killing me.”
“It’s a secret,” Christy said. “You’re going to love it.”
“I can’t wait,” Mom said. “You girls are just too much. I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”
“Sadie, put the blindfold on,” Christy said. She had gotten a “sleep mask” in her stocking that year for Christmas. We figured we had to blindfold her, or we’d never get her out of the car.
“Ta-dah!” I said, pulling the sleep mask out from the pocket of my jeans.
“Are you kidding?” My mother beamed. I felt pangs of regret as I blindfolded her.
Mom made a sound like a kid imitating a train. “Whoo-hoo,” she said. Normally, she did that when she saw something beautiful in nature: a cool sunset, a circling hawk, a glistening lake.
Christy turned left on Los Robles Drive. It was a long street with no stoplights.
Mom rubbed her hands together. “Mmmmm, yummy, yummy. Boy, am I hungry,” she said. “What made you girls decide to do something like this? It’s just so darn sweet of you.”
My teeth were chattering. I couldn’t tell if it was my wet shirt or my frayed nerves.
Christy pulled into the church parking lot. The tires crackled on the gravel drive. “We’re here,” she pronounced.
“Is it The Martindale, or Café Balanchine?” Mom asked. “I bet it’s the Cattlemen’s Inn.”
“Nope,” Christy said.
Mom reached up to take the blindfold off.
Christy grabbed her wrist. “No! No, ya don’t,” she said.
Mom flopped her hands in her lap. “Well, then someone’s going to have to help me get out of this car.”
“I got you, Mom,” I said. I got out, and right before I opened the door for her, I took a good look at the church. I loved churches. The outside was surrounded by lights that reminded me of the footlights they had in the theater at my grammar school. The shadow from the large cross on the steeple loomed over our car. I took a deep breath. The air was crisp. The rain had stopped. That was a good sign.
“Okay, Mom, we’re here,” I said and helped her out of the car.
“Come on. Let me take the stupid blindfold off.”
“No, ya don’t,” I said. “You can’t take it off until we’re sitting down.”
“This is silly, Sadie.” She reached up for it.
Christy grabbed her wrist. “Mom, let us do this for you. Please. Don’t take it off until we’re seated. Promise?”
“Geez-Louise. Okay, I promise, but you girls are nuts.”
With our mother between us, we hooked arms and led her toward the entrance to the church. I was surprised that there were so few people. Christy had said the lady on the phone told her it was one of the biggest meetings in Santa Cecilia. When we got closer to the entrance though, I realized my first impression was wrong. We were flanked by groups of laughing loud people, crowding us on the steps.
A woman, my mother’s age, stood by the door. “What have we here?” she asked.
“It’s a surprise,” Christy said, “an early birthday present.”
“My birthday’s not until March,” Mom said.
“How many years?” the woman asked.
“A woman never reveals her . . .” I said but stopped. Christy had already yanked Mom through the double-doors.
“Welcome!” The woman called after us.
“What kind of place is this?” Mom asked, reaching for the blindfold. “Girls, let me take the blindfold off. This is embarrassing.”
“No, you don’t, Mama. Now. I want you to step down,” I said. “There’s a bunch of steps ahead of you. Step down.”
“Here we go, Mom. Be careful,” Christy said, as we led her down.
“All I can say is this better be good,” Mom said. “I’m famished, and positive we’re making spectacles of ourselves.”
“Who cares what people think,” I said. “We’re having an adventure. Isn’t that what you always say? Make life an adventure?” There were signs posted on the walls: Beachcombers downstairs.
We entered a multipurpose room. The harsh florescent lights buzzed overhead. The cream-colored linoleum was scuffed with heel marks. The chatter and laughter was loud. There must have been 200 people in a room the size of a school gymnasium.
“Wow. This place sure sounds popular. There’s a lot of people here. Is it Italian? French? It’s French, isn’t it?”
“It’s surprise, Mom,” Christy said. “Stop asking questions.” Christy led us down an aisle.
It was remarkable how loud and jovial everyone was. What were they all so damn happy about? My mother’s drinking was the single most tragic thing our family had ever experienced. Easy for them, I thought. They’ve quit. Of course they’re happy, but shit, they should be more considerate of the people whose lives have been devastated by alcoholism, the people who might have kidnapped their mothers and tricked them into coming to a meeting. A bummy-looking red-faced guy yelled out at the top of his lungs, “Shit!” Sheesh. Didn’t he know we were in a damn church?
“What’s happening?” Mom said.
“Oh, nothing,” Christy said, leading us down a row that had some empty seats left. “Just some crazy drunk. Mom, be careful. You’re walking in front of people.”
“What?” Mom said.
We sat down. A man in a suit sat next to me and said, “Hi.”
“Hi,” I said, wondering why everyone seemed so talkative. Maybe it was a cult. Maybe we’d gone to the wrong place. Maybe this was a meeting full of nutty Moonies. I tried to figure out what the commonality was among these people besides their drinking, but there was none. There were women in dresses and nylons, gay chicks, gay dudes, nature lover types, young people, sluts, bikers, tattooed convicts, business people, theater people, hipsters, the same people you’d see at the grocery store or DMV.
A group of women my mother’s age made their way down the row in front of us. The redheaded one sat down, then turned back to us. “Hi, girls,” she said. “What’s with the blindfold?”
“She’s our mother,” Christy said.
“Okay. What’s with the blindfold?”
A few of her friends turned around with stifled questions. A shorthaired bleached-blond lady sucked in air through her teeth, shook her head, then turned back around. The woman beside her with prematurely gray hair raised her eyebrows, giving each of us the once-over, then sighed. She whispered to the bleach-blond. It was obvious they didn’t approve of our plan. Then the gray-haired woman whispered something to the redhead, who opened her eyes wide and mouthed the words, “Oh, no.” It looked like a game of Disapproving Telephone. I didn’t like it. I felt nauseous. Maybe I was coming down with a fever. My mom had to be drunk out of her mind, or she’d never have put up with being blindfolded for this long. I leaned over and mouthed the words to Christy, We should take the blindfold off.
“Meeting time!” the man at the podium said.
“What is this?” Mom said, yanking off the blindfold. Her mouth slowly dropped open as she put the pieces together. Her eyes welled up with tears. She inhaled and shook her head “no” as she exhaled. I was desperate to apologize, but the thought occurred to me, what if this works? What if she hears something here and decides to stop drinking. I felt a throbbing sensation in my ear. It was my own heartbeat.
“Come on in, everybody,” the man said. “Don’t be shy. Take your seats. Welcome to Beachcombers.”
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Mom hissed.
The man leaned into the microphone and recited a bunch of mumbo-jumbo from a book, then asked, “Are there any newcomers here in their first thirty days?”
My mother shoved her chair into the knees of an older gentleman in a tweed hat behind us and stood up. “Whoa there, little lady,” he said.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Mom hissed.
“You there. The woman in the trench coat,” said the man from the podium, pointing at my mother. “State your name and disease.”
A few people cleared their throats. Someone coughed. My mother looked around and must have seen someone she knew because she shook her head and waved then sat back down in her seat and pulled up the lapels on her flasher coat like a spy in a cartoon.
“Not ready yet. I can relate,” he said. The audience roared with laughter. “Welcome anyway, and keep coming back,” he said. “How about thirty days. Anybody have thirty days without a drink or a drug?” A few people walked down the aisles to the microphone and told the whole room they were alcoholics.
The redhead turned around and patted my mother’s knee. “Welcome,” she said then turned back.
Mom brushed off her knee where the redhead’s hand had been, gave us each a steely glare, gritted her teeth, and looked straight ahead.
“Just give it a chance,” Christy said. Her chin quivered. Her eyes looked like half-moons. She wrinkled her nose. Her bottom lip stuck out. The corners of her mouth trembled and twisted down. As soon as I figured out that Christy had totally lost her shit, the words, Get Mom out of here now, pressed against my temples.
I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I started making uncontrollable low-volume seal sounds. I covered my mouth and pretended to cough, then thought I might barf. “I’ve got to get some air,” I whispered.
As soon as I stood up, the entire room burst into a boisterous rendition of “Happy Birthday.” I ran to the double doors in the back and took one last look. Everyone seemed to be paying close attention to what the old lady was saying, about how happy and grateful she was to be sober. Mom still had the collar of her trench coat flipped up, but now she was wearing her big bug-eye sunglasses. She looked ridiculous. She might as well have hung a sandwich-board sign around her neck that said, “Help! I’m in denial.” I felt a tear tickle the end of my nose.
I wiped more tears off my jawline. My sister and I shouldn’t have deceived our mother. It was like one of the hair-brained schemes Lucy and Ethel would have thought up in an old episode of I Love Lucy, only our scheme was crushing to our mother. I had to pull the plug and get Mom out of there or … barf. I felt gaggy, so I took off running up the stairs, figuring I’d go back and get her after I puked. There was a trashcan holding one of the double-doors open. I’d made it in time, but nothing came up, so I bent over the can gagging until it did. God, I hated throwing up.
As I barfed, a pair of warm hands pulled the hair away from my face. It was my mom. She rubbed my back. “Ah, baby,” she said. “Just let it go. You’ll be okay, honey.” Drunk or sober, nobody could soothe me when I barfed like my mom. “Aw, sweetheart,” she said, and the kinder she was to me, the worse I felt.
We drove home in silence that night. Not one word was spoken about how we had tricked her. Dead silence. Christy didn’t even turn on the radio. She parked the car. We got out, walked back to the apartment. Mom made herself a cocktail, and Christy and I went to bed. We never spoke of it again.
For a kid like me, born with a megaphone for a mouth, it was odd that I came from such a tight-lipped family. Nobody talked about anything. I’m reminded of the time I’d found a bottle of vodka in the tank of the toilet. I poured it out. I’d thought I was so clever when I refilled it with white cider vinegar and put it back. I couldn’t wait for my mother to take a big swig of vinegar instead of vodka, then come storming out of the bathroom screaming at me, or riddled with remorse apologizing—something, anything, so I could say “Mom, you’re an alcoholic. I hate it. You’ve got to quit drinking,” but all of the scenarios I’d played out in my mind never came to pass. Instead, the one thing happened that I’d never predicted, but should have. She didn’t say a word about it. She just changed her hiding place.