I sit down on the rickety folding chair to wait. It is not as comfortable as the other chair, but I am not certain of the fabric’s cleanliness, so I choose the metal chair.
I wait for hours.
Finally at just past eight o’clock in the evening, I hear the crunching of tires on gravel.
The door opens and I see my mother for the first time in almost three years. Her skin has the wrinkled gray cast that comes with years of hardscrabble, drunken living. Her fingernails are brown with dirt. Clawing your way through life will do that.
“Tully,” she says. It surprises me, both the strong, even tenor of her voice and the use of my nickname. All my life she has called me Tallulah, which I hate.
“Hi, Cloud,” I say, standing.
“I’m Dorothy now.”
Another name change. Before I can say anything, a man comes into the house and stands beside her. He is tall and whipcord-lean, with wrinkles in his tanned cheeks that look like furrows. I can read his story in his eyes—and it is not a pretty one.
My mother is high, I’m pretty sure. But since I don’t think I’ve ever seen her sober, how would I know?
“I’m so glad to see you,” she says, giving me an uncertain smile.
I believe her, but I always believe her. Believing her is my Achilles’ heel. My faith is as constant as her rejection. No matter how successful I become, ten seconds in her presence will always turn me into poor little Tully again. Always hopeful.
Not today. I don’t have the time—or the energy—to step on that Tilt-A-Whirl again.
“This is Edgar,” my mother says.
“Hi,” he says, giving my mother a frown. Her dealer, probably.
“Do you have any family photographs?” I say, a little impatiently. I am beginning to feel claustrophobic.
“Family photos. Pictures of me as a girl, that kind of thing.”
I wish it didn’t hurt, but it does, and the hurt pisses me off. “You took no pictures of me as a baby?”
She shakes her head, saying nothing. There is no excuse and she knows it.
“Can you tell me anything about my childhood or who my dad was or where I was born?”
She flinches at each word, pales.
“Look, missy—” the pot dealer says, moving toward me.
“Stay out of this,” I snap. To my mother, I say, “Who are you?”
“You don’t want to know,” she says, sounding scared. “Trust me.”
I am wasting my time. Whatever I need for my book, I won’t find it here. This woman isn’t my mother. She might have given birth to me, but that’s where her commitment to me ended.
“Yeah,” I say, sighing. “Why would I want to know who you are? Who I am?” I grab my purse off the floor and push past her and leave the house.
I pick my way over the furrowed, upended piles of dirt and get in my car and drive home. All the way back to Seattle, I am replaying the scene with my mother over and over again in my head, trying to glean meaning from nuance, but there is nothing there.
I pull into my building and park.
I know I should go upstairs and work on my book—maybe today’s outing will be a scene. At least it is something.
But I can’t do it, can’t walk up into my empty condominium. I need a drink.
I call Marah—she sounds sleepy when she answers—and tell her I’m going to be home late. She tells me she’s already in bed and not to wake her when I get home.
I exit the elevator and go straight to the bar, where I allow myself only two dirty martinis, which calm my racing nerves and steady me again. It is almost one o’clock in the morning when I finally go upstairs and unlock the door to my condo.
All of the lights are on and I can hear the TV.
Frowning, I close the door behind me. It clicks shut.
I walk down the hallway, turning off lights as I go. Tomorrow I will have to have a talk with Marah. She needs to understand that light switches flip both ways.
As I pass her bedroom door, I pause.
Her light is on. I can see the strip of it beneath the closed door.
I knock gently, sure she has fallen asleep watching TV.
There is no answer, so I open the door quietly.
I am unprepared for what I see.
The room is empty. There are Coke cans on both nightstands, the TV is on, and the bed is unmade from this morning. Rumpled sheets are heaped in the middle of the bed.
“Wait a second.”
Marah is not here. At one o’clock in the morning. She lied to me about being home and in bed.
“What do I do?” I am talking to myself now, or maybe to Kate, as I rush from room to room, flinging open doors.
I call her phone. There is no answer. I text: Where are you??? and hit send.
Should I call Johnny? Or the police?
It is one-ten now. I am shaking as I pick up the phone. I have dialed 9-1 when I hear a key jiggling in the lock on my front door.
Marah comes in as if she is a cat burglar, trying to tiptoe, but even from here I can see that she is off balance, and she keeps giggling and shushing herself.
“Marah.” My voice is so sharp I sound like a mother for the first time in my life.
She turns, trips, hits the door hard, and starts to laugh. Then she clamps a hand over her mouth and mumbles, “Shorry. Thass not funny.”
I take her by the arm and lead her into her bedroom. She stumbles along beside me, trying not to laugh.
“So,” I say when she collapses onto her bed. “You’re drunk.”
“I only had two beersh,” she says.
“Uh-huh.” I help her get undressed and then guide her into the bathroom. When she sees the toilet, she moans, “I’m gonna be shick—” and I barely have time to hold back her hair before the vomit flies.
When she is done puking, I put toothpaste on her toothbrush and hand it to her. She is pale now, and as weak as a rag doll. I can feel her trembling as I guide her into bed.
I crawl into bed beside her and put an arm around her. She leans against me and sighs. “I feel terrible.”
“Consider this a life lesson. This is not two beers, by the way. So what were you really drinking?”
“Absinthe.” That is not what I expected. “Is that even legal?”
“In my day girls like Ashley and Lindsey and Coral drank rum and Cokes,” I say, frowning. Am I really so old that I don’t know what kids are drinking these days? “I am going to call Ashley and—”
“No!” she cries.
“I, uh … wasn’t with them,” she says.
Another lie. “Who were you with?”
She looks at me. “A bunch of kids from my therapy group.”
I frown. “Oh.”
“They’re cooler than I thought,” she says quickly. “And really, Tully, it’s just drinking. Everyone does it.”
That’s true. And she’s definitely drunk; I can smell it on her breath. Drugs would be different. What eighteen-year-old doesn’t come home drunk at least once?
“I remember the first time I got drunk. I was with your mom, of course. We got caught, too. It wasn’t pretty.” I smile at the memory. It was 1977, on the day I was supposed to go in foster care. Instead, I’d run away—straight to Kate’s house—and convinced her to go to a party with me. We’d gotten busted by the cops and been put in separate interrogation rooms.
Margie had come for me, in the middle of the night.
A girl who lived with us would have to follow the rules. That was what she said to me. After that, I got to see what a family was, even if I was on the outside, looking in.
“Paxton is way cool,” Marah says quietly, leaning against me.
This worries me. “The goth kid?”
“That’s harsh. I thought you didn’t judge people.” Marah sighs dreamily. “Sometimes, when he talks about his sister and how much he misses her, I start to cry. And he totally gets how much I miss my mom. He doesn’t make me pretend. When I’m in a sad mood, he reads me his poetry and holds me until I feel better.”
Poetry. Sorrow. Darkness. Of course Marah is drawn in. I get it. I’ve read Interview with a Vampire. I remember thinking Tim Curry was totally hot in Rocky Horror, spangly heels and corset and all.
But still, Marah is young and Dr. Bloom says she’s fragile. “As long as you’re with a group of kids—”
“Totally,” Marah says earnestly. “And we’re just friends, Tully. Me and Pax, I mean.”
I am relieved by this.
“You won’t tell my dad, right? I mean, he’s not as cool as you are, and he wouldn’t understand me being friends with someone like Pax.”
“I’m glad you’re just friends. Keep it that way, okay? You’re not ready for anything more. How old is he, by the way?”
“Oh. That’s good. I guess every girl gets swept away by a brooding poet at least once in her life. I remember this weekend in Dublin, back in— Oh, wait. I can’t tell you that story.”
“You can tell me anything, Tully. You’re my best friend.”
She twists me around her little finger with that one; I love her so much right now it honestly hurts. But I can’t let her glamour me. I need to take care of her.
“I won’t tell your dad about Pax, because you’re right, he’d freak. But I won’t lie to him, so don’t make me. Deal?”
“And Marah, if I come home to an empty house again, I’m calling your dad first and the cops second.”
Her smile falls. “Okay.”
* * *
It changes something in me, that late-night talk with Marah.
You’re my best friend.
I know it’s not quite true, that really we are surrogates for each other, both of us standing in for Kate. But that truth fades in the sunshine of a beautiful Seattle summer. Marah’s love for me—and my love for her—is the lifeline I have needed. For the first time in my life, I am really, truly needed, and my reaction to that surprises me. I want to be there for Marah in a way I’ve never really been there for anyone. Not even Kate. The truth is that Kate didn’t need me. She had a family who loved her, a doting husband, and adoring parents. She brought me into the circle of her family and she loved me, but I was the one with the need.
Now, for once, I am the strong and stable one, or I intend to be. For Marah, I find the strength to be a better version of myself. I put my Xanax and sleeping pills away and cut back on the wine. Each morning I get up early to make her breakfast and make the calls for dinner takeout to be delivered.
Then I go to work on my memoir. After the dismal reunion with my mother, I decide to let go of the part of my story I don’t know. It’s not that I no longer care—I still care deeply. I am desperate to know my own life story, and my mother’s, but I accept the reality. I will have to write a memoir based on what I know. So, on a gorgeous day in July, I sit down and simply begin.
Here’s the thing: When you grow up as I have, a lost girl without any real past, you latch on to the people who seem to love you. At least that’s what I did. It started early, my holding on too tightly and needing too much. I always craved love. The unconditional, even unearned kind. I needed someone to say it to me. Not to sound poor me, but my mother never said it. Neither did my grandmother. There was no one else.