Two Excerpts From Mia Mather’s memoir.
I sat down on the front steps. I wondered if I had my keys. I tried to remember if I’d come out through the downstairs door, in which case I would have needed the key to unlock the outside gate. But Warren had taken the garbage out earlier so maybe he hadn’t locked the gate again. I couldn’t remember opening the gate from the inside with the key, but I couldn’t remember going out the upstairs door either. I was pretty drunk.
It was late, after eleven, but the summer night was still welcoming. I lay back on the steps and looked up. I couldn’t see any stars. “There are no stars in the city,” I thought. Outside the city, in the countryside where I’d grown up, there were stars and fireflies in the summer. Fireflies were nice. But the country was boring; long, slow days, and long, desolate nights with the neighbors’ dogs howling. I liked the city. Greenwich Village stayed awake on summer weekends. I liked that. I liked the sounds of voices and the street. Lying with my head back on the steps like this I couldn’t see the people on the sidewalk or the passing cars, but I knew they were there.
“This is my stoop,” I thought. “I own it.” That still amazed me. Warren and I had bought this brownstone in the village. I was 32 and I had money saved that we used for a down payment, and we both paid the mortgage, but Warren paid much more of it, and the rent from the upstairs helped a lot. We had the downstairs duplex. It had been Warren’s idea. “Let’s buy the brownstone that’s for sale on Charles Street,” he had said. He could do that, have thoughts like that and then act on them. He was wonderful. Our house had been a rooming house at one time, and most of the original detail was gone inside. There was a tenement on our left. The brownstones across the street were wider. The one directly across had been completely restored inside. Warren had told the owner how lucky he was to live on the nice side of the street. “Yes,” the owner had replied, “but you’ve got the view.” It was true, they looked at a tenement and we looked at brownstones. I sat up to study them but my head went around. I was very drunk. This was going to be a problem.
Warren and I weren’t married, but we might have well as been. When you own property together you’re going to need a lawyer to separate, so it’s the same thing. I thought, “In 1972 you don’t have to be married in the law to be married.” I struggled with this concept but my mind wasn’t holding on it to it very well so I let it drift up into the dark green branches above the street.
I had thought about what separating was because it was very hard to live with Warren. It was very hard for me to live with Warren. “You are too sensitive,” he kept saying. Warren was a real person. He had an executive job, he had real thoughts. He didn’t spend time contemplating himself and his moods and his feelings. He just moved in the world. I admired that. I supposed if you were used to getting your way during the day it would hard to get home at night and negotiate, even if you loved the other person.
And he was funny. I’d planned to roast a chicken for dinner. I had the whole chicken ready on the counter. The book said to tie the drumsticks together, but it kept slipping around. I was afraid I was going to get my nice dress dirty so I took it off, and my good bra and my uncomfortable panty hose and put on an apron. I tried to hold onto the chicken but it still kept sliding around on the counter. I grabbed it and it shot out of my hands and across the room. Just then Warren walked in, and looked at the bare chicken in one corner and me, naked, in the other. “It looks like you’re winning on points,” he said. We both starting laughing. “This is love,” I thought, “when someone makes you laugh so hard you have to pee.”
Where were my keys? I tried my shirt pocket and found a piece of paper. It looked like a list but I couldn’t tell what sort of list so I tried put it back, but it was hard to do because it had become too big. I folded it up very neatly, very small, and it fit nicely. I patted a pocket in the front of my pants, feeling for the keys, but it was too bunched up to tell anything, and I wasn’t ready to stand up. I felt the other front pocket but it had the same problem. I stood up without thinking and patted my back pockets. Not there. I couldn’t remember if I’d already tried my shirt. Or maybe I had put them in my bra? That was where I put them when I was jogging. It was too complicated and I couldn’t remember where I’d already looked. Beside, standing up wasn’t a good idea. I sat down.
I tried to remember when I’d starting drinking tonight. It was after the chicken was finally in the oven, after dinner. It was while I was washing the dishes, and had remembered the glasses man. I had stopped in an optician’s because I’d lost a little screw from my glasses. The man behind the counter searched in a drawer until he found the right size screw. He was putting it in with a tiny screwdriver. “Would you like to have an affair with me?” he asked. I was startled and scared. He was so ordinary looking. “No,” I said, unable to think. “No. I’m married.” I wanted to run out but he still had my glasses. He handed them back to me and as I turned away he said, “Many women like to suck my penis.”
It seemed easier to think about this now, at a distance, less threatening. Who would want to suck his penis? Probably no one did anything with him unless he gave them money. One of the things that made it so strange was his saying “my penis.” It should have been ‘my cock”, or “give me head” or “go down on me.” It was as though English wasn’t his native language, although he had no accent, and his intonations were correct. It must be a ritual phrase for him – suck my penis. It must mean something special to him, something exciting. He is compelled to say it. I wondered how often this happened, that he said this to strange women. Someday there would be real trouble for him because of it. He surely knew that, but he must have to do it.
The whole thing was frightening, the incident, and his need. I pushed it out of my mind, pushed it all away from me, and let the summer air come around me like a soft quilt. My hand moved over the warm, fine abrasive surface of the steps. “What I would like is to be in bed,” I thought, “falling asleep.” But I couldn’t be in bed, because I had forgotten my keys, or couldn’t find them, which was the same difficult thing.
A friend told me to try not drinking for a whole month. If you could go without a drink for a month then you weren’t a drunk. Well I guess I was a drunk. It had been – I wasn’t sure, but it hadn’t been a whole month. It was hard not to drink. There was that feeling of ease, of something relaxing. It was so much nicer to be with other people when I was drinking. I liked the taste. I liked the bite of the gin and the strong, sweet tastes of liquors.
When I drank, I had hangovers in the mornings, and it made it hard to work. The one time I had tried to work when I really wasn’t sober, I couldn’t do it at all. It was impossible to make those quick, beautiful, slippery connections between one part of a computer program and another, between what I was coding now and what I had coded yesterday or would work on tomorrow. I was very good, I knew that, but not when I had been drinking. I wondered how long I could keep it up before they noticed at work. I didn’t wonder what it would be like if they let me go. I could feel that in the pit of my stomach. I needed to work. I needed to know I had money coming in. I needed it to be safe. That was one of the things that drinking did – let me feel safe for a while. But then it made me even less safe.
Thinking about not being safe made me think about how hard it was to stand up and that I’d be in trouble if someone who saw me sprawled out like this decided I was passed out and wanted to rob me. I propped myself on my elbows. I should go inside. But I didn’t know where my keys were so I’d have to ring the doorbell and Warren would have to let me in and then he’d say something. Something angry.
Warren could make me feel safe. Warren could help me act brave. I could buy a brownstone with Warren. But sometimes I felt as though he just didn’t see me, or care, and then I felt like I was falling. I needed to keep working. I needed the money, my money, so I would have something if he ever got angry enough to let me fall away. My being drunk made him angry. My being drunk and not being able to find my keys would make him really angry. If I had my keys I could get back in, and maybe he’d still be in the upstairs front room and I could brush my teeth and slide into bed before he knew.
The same friend who had told me about not drinking for a month had told me that if you are a drunk and you stop drinking and then start again, it was as though you had never stopped, as though your drinking problem had progressed even though you weren’t actually drinking. It was as though it was a disease inside you. Well I was very drunk, and it hadn’t taken a lot to get me here.
I thought about drinking and what it would be like, living with Warren, and I knew we wouldn’t be together. I felt it as a certainty, as a stone inside my chest, that we would separate if I kept on drinking. He wouldn’t put up with it. We would separate and someday years from now I would look back and wonder what would have happened between us if I hadn’t been drinking. It would be so terrible. I could see myself, maybe on a bus somewhere, maybe working in some dingy office with dirty windows, having his image expand and fill the space and having to just sit and wonder. We might not have lasted anyway because I was too sensitive, but I’d never know because I’d lost him for the drinking.
It was very difficult and now I was sick and exhausted, drunk, on the steps. I couldn’t do this again. I couldn’t lose my job, I couldn’t lose him. I would have to do something. AA? I hoped there was something else. I’d look in the phonebook tomorrow. I made myself think of not ever drinking. I made myself think “this is possible. You can do this.” I thought “this is what real people do in the world. They do things that are hard for them.”
I heard the door open above me and I heard his voice. “Coming to bed?” I knew from his tone that I was safe, that he didn’t know I had been drinking. It was a sign, a sign that I would be all right. I got up carefully and turned around. He stood at the top of the steps, tall, full, the light from the hall behind him. The shape of his head and the outline of the shirt collar on his neck moved me. “You forgot your keys,” he said, and laughed.
“I know,” I said, but I hadn’t known and now I did. “Oh Warren, you wouldn’t leave me, would you?” I felt my desperation as a physical thing, as though my arms were stretched toward him.
“Of course not. How could I ever leave a naked chicken wrestler?” I took his hand. I would look in the phonebook tomorrow. I would ask someone.
I have just been to visit my sister, who lives on an island off the coast of Maine. Now I am riding in a van service from the Rockland ferry terminal to the Portland airport. There is another woman in the back seat who is also going to the airport. She is using a laptop. The keys go clickety clickety.
Just ahead is a house that used to be an antiques store. Warren, my husband, and I stopped there once, before the long drive home. He died almost three years ago. Warren could drive from the Rockland ferry terminal to New York City in seven hours. Everyone else takes nine. Fang, our car, was an old BMW with a sweet ride and an incredible engine. When Warren told Fang to overtake something, Fang did. If Warren got frustrated with a person who was driving too slowly in the left hand lane, he passed on the right, blowing his horn and giving the other driver the finger through the sun roof. I finally got him to give up the sun roof part when stories about road rage became so prevalent, but I couldn’t keep him from passing on the right. I don’t miss the speeding and the passing, but it makes me sad to think we will never drive up here together again.
We are coming through Thomaston, a small town with classic white houses lining the road. We are going past a wide open space where a state prison used to stand. I wonder what having the prison torn down did for real estate values. When I was young I worried that my older brother, who had poor judgment and bad friends, would end up in prison. He didn’t. He found Scientology and it took all his money and spit him back out. Now he lives in a tiny room in Los Angeles, on social security, California disability and money I send him. I think he is content, or at least not too sad. Maybe a little lonely, but so are we all. He likes the weather there and does not want to come live with me in New York where it gets cold.
I had a nice visit with my sister. She is twelve years younger. We look enough alike that people often recognize us as sisters, both of us tall and blonde. Her hair is cut very short and mine is long. She has a landscaper gardening business. She works outdoors four days a week and is the bookkeeper and general everything at the island’s Land Trust one day a week. On weekends she digs in her own yard. Her house is a showpiece, a simple two story with two porches, fat cats draped on the steps, surrounded by gardens. In the winter she scrapes and paints her kitchen floor, or steams off the ancient wallpaper. She is very smart, and has self discipline; she eats her lobsters without butter, and confines herself to one piece of chocolate a night.
I think to myself that I am a slug. My favorite city bus is the number 5, which stops just outside my building. There is something luxurious about being conveyed to my doorstep. I rarely visit the gym. I have houseplants, but only the strong survive, those that flourish on neglect. However, my sister and I both chose, completely independently, the same obscure stainless steel dish drainer. We buy, without consultation, the same sweaters from LL Bean and we like the same books. She is moderation in all things, but I believe that too much ain’t enough. I think about all those little inheritable genes deciding where to go. “You get in this egg and I’ll wait for the next one.”
I am also a glutton, not a gourmet or a gourmand, but a glutton. I am failing Overeaters Anonymous. I don’t know if you could say I failed Alcoholics Anonymous long ago. I did give up drinking, but I couldn’t get into the spirit of the AA meetings. I was too shy to make friends and I never found a group where I felt at home. The main reason I stopped drinking was that I knew I’d lose Warren if I drinking. That was Warren the first time. I left him five years after I got sober, and fifteen years later we found each other again and that was Warren the second time. He had gotten softer and I had gotten harder, and we were a better fit.
I couldn’t find my Higher Power in AA, and I can’t find it in OA. I should look for a sponsor, someone who is experienced and can guide me in OA, but I am suspicious of giving myself up to another person’s direction. A brilliant black woman spoke at one meeting, and I thought she might be the right person. She seemed clear and strong, but I have never seen her again. Meanwhile I subsist on self disgust, cake and ice cream, and fear of the future.
I look out the window. It is a lovely time of year. The trees are full and the grass is lush. There are patches of wild lupines in pink and blue beside the road. Warren died in the fall. There was a star outside the bedroom window in the early mornings, bright and still. Maybe it was a planet, or a satellite. I didn’t care. I felt its calm, constancy as balm.
The road follows the coast and there are occasional glimpses of quiet bays. After a while we come to a bridge over shiny railroad tracks. This is the old freight railroad line from Rockland to Portland. They fixed it up and now they run a tourist train on it. On my left, the tracks curve around a large stand of pines. Warren and I came up here once long ago. The tracks were abandoned then, with rotting ties and dark, rusted rails. Around the curve behind the pines, out of sight of the road, we made love. We called the bend in the tracks, Pauline’s Curve, after old movies “The Perils of Pauline”. He took off my clothes and tied me to the rails. I put my blue jeans on the ties to protect myself from splinters. We were laughing so hard we almost couldn’t do it, and then we could. I’d like to think Pauline is still down there, naked, laughing and gay, hiding in the woods when a train comes by.
Warren and I made love outdoors in other places too, in the back country. We liked to get off the highway anyway, maybe because Fang rode so beautifully on little roads, swinging around the curves, climbing the small, steep hills. There were streams running alongside, abandoned orchards, barns sinking into the earth. The only vehicles we needed to pass were occasional lumbering tractors.
What will become of me? I am too old. I wouldn’t look lovely naked now, tied to the tracks. I count on my fingers. I have had six long love affairs, with five different people. (I count Warren twice.) I suppose that is a lot. I should be more grateful. I have friends who have only had one or two. But there were long periods without love also. I am tired, tired of myself. I could make a list of my failures:: shyness, anger, nail biting, being judgmental, gluttony etc, but it would be neither sufficiently sad nor sufficiently funny. When you are young everything seems momentous. When you are 69 it’s not so easy.
We pass well maintained white farmhouses with big old barns behind them. The grass is mowed, but there are few ploughed fields and no cows. These are summer places now. When I was a young girl I just assumed that someday I would have a white house, maybe with fields, maybe in town, and I would beat the rugs outside on the porch railing and hang the quilts on the line to air. Instead I lived in rent control apartments and learned to program computers. I liked the work. I liked the beautiful logic it took to do it well. I liked elegant code; statements to the computer that made it run faster. I liked working alone, doing something well. Later I became a manager. I was good at that too, but I missed the beautiful simplicity of programming. Now I am retired. Computers change so fast. It is painful to think that all those programs I wrote, all those huge systems I installed, are gone now. I cared too much. I wanted things to work; I wanted things to be right. I stayed late and worked weekends. I wonder what life I would have had if I had been able to leave work at five. Would I have found someone else who left at five, and married him and had a white house? I’m glad now I don’t have one. It would be lonely out there at night. I would see the lights of one or two neighbors at most. One star outside the window was comforting, but a whole sky of indifferent constellations would have been frightening.
Warren was a city person. He didn’t want a house in the country. He wanted to read the Times and watch the news and go to ballgames. He followed politics and knew the governors and senators from every state, and their parties and where they stood on issues. He projected election results for the networks and the newspapers. He was famous and he loved that. He belonged to professional societies and was their president and served on their boards. I was so used to turning to him for information that it took me a long time after he died to realize I would have to learn these things for myself.
We have passed the place where Warren and I used to stop for lobster rolls. They were so good. It was our way of saying goodbye to Maine. I miss having one. We are entering the outskirts of Portland. The city has created a jogging and biking path along part of the bay. I like to think I would use it if I lived here, but I know better. I rarely use the parks in New York City. I wish I were someone else, someone who liked to take walks, who didn’t want cake for breakfast. I can’t blame who I am now on Warren’s death. I was that way before. There is no way to explain anything.
In the first year after he died I would go to the theater. Sometimes the play would involve someone dying. After the death some of the people on stage would be upset. I would get angry. I wanted to say this is not what death is. It is not a plot device. It is not someone being there and then not being there, boo hoo. It is not that simple. It is about never again. Do you understand never? What is it you don’t understand about never? I would be angry and crying also. I learned to cry silently in public, just letting the tears run down my face. I stopped wearing silk, because the water made stains.
Soon there will be the airport and security. Take out my laptop, take off my shoes, take off my belt. It is disorderly; it is rude to make people take off their shoes and their belts. Some of the World Trade Center terrorists flew from the Portland airport to Boston and on to their grisly task. They used a cash machine in New Brunswick. We passed through there a few minutes ago. Warren had pointed out the cash machine to me, but now I can’t remember which one it is.
The lady in the back seat has closed up her laptop. I hear her rooting around, putting it back into her carry on. I wonder what existential really means? I want to tell myself I am suffering an existential sorrow, but that is because it sounds better than saying I feel old, and sad, and lonely. I am rarely this way any more. It must be having to see once familiar things in a new way. The first year was the indescribable pain of enormous loss. The second was missing the company, the simple shared conversations, the rustling on the other side of the bed. Perhaps the third is when one mourns the collateral damage, the back country drives, the place we stopped for a lobster roll. Grief comes and goes and time changes things. Someday I will not remember Pauline on the railroad tracks. And soon, today, I will be home, where loss is familiar and accepted.