The last time I’d seen Madame was right after I returned from Hazelden, a fancy drug- and alcohol-rehab center in Minnesota. It was now a year later, and my birthday, but considering the circumstances you’d think I wouldn’t have to remind her not to buy me wine.
She’d called a week before with the whole weekend planned: “On Saturday we’ll eat in and go to the Pillow after. How does that sound?” She meant Jacob’s Pillow, a dance center near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where I lived.
“OK, sure,” I said, a little surprised since it’s not every day my mother comes to visit me.
We talked about Bill T. Jones, the dancer we were going to see, and she announced, “He’s gay,” pausing a second afterward, like the word was a pretty box with a ribbon tied around it.
“I know,” I said, keeping my voice neutral, aware that Madame was trying to say she forgives me for sleeping with girls — which she doesn’t, of course. Still, I gave her credit for trying.
But then for my birthday she brought me a bottle of Lillet like nothing had happened, like she didn’t know I’d stopped drinking, like she was trying to knock me off the wagon with a two-by-four. I’d been dry as a bone since Hazelden, going to AA twice a week, looking for a job, trying to walk this narrow line down the center of my life — and then bam! my mother was in town wishing me happy birthday with an aperitif.
“God, Eloise, surely you can allow yourself a glass of cold wine before supper every now and again,” she said, pooh pooh and paw paw, like the big problem was me.
“You’re too smart for this, darling,” she’d said during the only AA meeting she ever attended with me, right after I got out of Hazelden. At a quarter to three on my first Saturday back in the world, I was walking out my front door when Madame stepped out of the bathroom, freshly lipsticked, keys in hand.
“You’re coming to the meeting?” I said.
“As long as no one’s expecting me to chuck my vodka on the bonfire. But I’m not saying anything, do you understand? I have nothing to confess.”
In Madame’s book, people who don’t drink lack that essential spark separating humans from the rest of the mammals. We AA-types don’t know how to let our hair down. We’re an undifferentiated mob of judgmental puritans. Sob sisters. Our minds turned to jelly by too many self-help books. Dull, dull, dull. If one has “a problem,” according to Madame, one deals with it sensibly.
But in the basement of Saint James Church, my mother sat with her best Holy Communion smile on, hands folded atop the pocketbook in her lap like an angel on duty. She wore a gray tweed Blass sweater ensemble, a gold locket on a long chain, and alligator pumps from Bergdorf’s. She was sitting next to a guy named Arnie, who looked like he might have a buck strapped to his fender and a heavily thumbed copy of Hustler in his glove box. He had work boots on, and grease under his fingernails. Granted, there were a few men in khakis and loafers, and a few women with highlights and lipstick, but not many. One woman had a black eye.
Suffice it to say, Madame stood out.
A man named Andy started things off by telling his story, from how he started drinking as a kid, to beatings by his father, to his parents’ divorce, to his own marriage and divorce, and on through losing his two little girls in a custody battle. He was having a bad week because one of them had a birthday coming up. The group leader asked if anyone wanted to respond to Andy’s story. Each person who spoke had to begin the same way: “Hi, my name is __ and I’m an alcoholic.” Then everyone answered in unison, “Hi, __!”
About halfway through the meeting, I raised my hand.
“Hi, my name is Eloise and I’m an alcoholic.”
I introduced Madame and talked briefly about the fact that I had just left Hazelden and would need a lot of support. In addition to giving up the bottle during my stay there, I’d lost my lover of five years, Larch. Before winding up in Hazelden, I found out she’d been sleeping with some bull-dyke AIDS lawyer named Gwen. (I didn’t actually mention this.) After that discovery, I disappeared for a three-week binge in Provincetown without telling anyone, including my boss. Needless to say, I was fired. Larch finally found me, scraped me off the hotel wall in Provincetown, organized an intervention, and packed me off to Hazelden. Her last gift, I suppose. While I was there, she picked up and moved to Ann Arbor with Gwen. Anyway, I decided to save all that for another time as well.
After I finished my little speech, Madame patted my thigh and smiled dimly at me as if I had just finished a mediocre violin solo.
At the coffee break, I asked what she thought.
“Everyone seems very . . . sincere,” she said, fingering her locket. Her mouth was a thin line.
“I don’t know, Eloise. I suppose if one could get around everything else . . .”
“You mean the way everyone is dressed?” I said fiercely.
She searched my face calmly, patiently. “No, I mean all this crap about ‘higher powers’ and ‘twelve steps.’ ” That’s when she said, “You’re too smart for this, darling.”
We sipped our coffee in silence for a full minute.
“Mom?” I said finally.
She was looking at a curling print of Saint Francis on a hillside reaching out a hand to a circle of dewy-eyed animals. I never call Madame “Mom.”
“Mom,” I said again, louder.
“Well, I liked that ol’ gal,” she said, nodding in the direction of the woman with the black eye, who had earlier described how her boyfriend had beaten her up. She’d kicked him out, she said, and was thinking about going back to school to get her business-administration degree. “Her problem is that no-good boyfriend,” Madame said.
“He’s one of her problems,” I said. “Her other problem is that she’s a drunk.”
“Now, there’s a woman with real guts,” Madame said, ignoring me. She likes stories that feature wicked husbands and women pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
“Everyone here has guts,” I said. I could feel tears needle up high in my sinuses.
She gave me that same patient, violin-solo smile and said, “I think the second half of the meeting is starting.”
When I first saw that bottle of Lillet on my birthday, I considered calling Sylvie Stokes, my sponsor. (In AA, you’re on the buddy system, like in Girl Scouts.) But I didn’t, mainly because I knew she and her awful husband, the Reverend Daniel Stokes, would want to meet me at a diner and hug and cry and drink coffee half the day and talk about our childhoods.
Instead, when I saw the bottle, I walked out of the house, got in my van, and drove around Stockbridge in big circles for half an hour.
“I thought you were upstairs napping,” Madame said pleasantly from behind her magazine when I returned. She was sitting on the porch in my big wicker chair like she was Harriet, and Ozzie would be home any minute.
I sat down on the porch steps. In the van I’d been chewing myself up over what to say to her, but now everything felt almost normal again, like I’d made a big deal out of nothing. The world’s not an AA meeting, I told myself as I dug a little muck out from between two boards with my van key, and the argument inside my head slowly paled, then whitened, then blew away. Madame sipped at her glass every now and then. The glass was so blue I couldn’t see what was in it, though I knew her well enough to know it was a screwdriver.
She put down her magazine and looked at me in that appraising way of hers. “What do you know about Kim Il Sung?”
She does this. Her questions on current events feel like a gun barrel aimed at your face.
“For heaven’s sake, El. Dead leader? Asian country? Come on.”
“Oh yeah, his son’s the roly-poly one with the bouffant.”
“Exactly. And Kim Il Sung?”
“He was supposed to have been divine,” she said, as if it proved some point she was making.
“So the man died, for God’s sake. He did the one thing he was forbidden to do. They hired two thousand doctors to keep him alive, this poor bankrupt country. Now they’re spending three hundred thousand dollars to embalm the damn body.”
I scraped more muck.
Madame shook her head. “Men,” she snorted, reaching for her blue glass. Maybe she was thinking of the hair transplant my father got right after he divorced her.
I took a nap after lunch and woke up angry again. I’d expected her to bring vodka for herself — she barely goes anywhere without it — but to bring liquor for me? I went into the kitchen and saw her in the back yard, painting. I wanted to run out and shake her, throw her silly watercolors everywhere, rip the pages out of her sketch pad, smash that blue glass into a million bits, scream, Don’t you know how hard this is for me? into her blank blue eyes.
Before I knew it, I had opened the fridge and was staring at the bottle of Lillet. It was a slender bottle, washed with gold, with a screw-on aluminum cap: very European — probably a gift from one of her gallery buddies. Beads of condensation ringed its neck like perspiration. For some reason it made me think of the white organza curtains in the little motel in Provincetown, but I didn’t want to remember Provincetown, so I filled my mind with the bottle’s name: Lillet, Lillet, Lillet. Those curtains rustling at the window. Lillet, Lillet, Lillet. And suddenly I was thinking of the woman I’d met on the beach near the little movie house, remembering her large, upturned nipples and her bellybutton like a teardrop, how she started taking her clothes off between the car and the door, how she couldn’t wait to get to my room. Lillet, Lillet, Lillet.
Then it occurred to me that I was in trouble, as much trouble as I’d been in since Provincetown. I closed the refrigerator and went to the sink for a glass of water, trying to get back to where I’d been before my mother had shown up.
I’ll go see a movie, I thought. Get out for a while.
And then, like an invasion: It’s only one glass. You don’t have to make such a big deal out of everything.
The next second I was unscrewing the cap, pouring the wine into one of my antique goblets, setting the bottle back behind the milk.
And I will light a cigarette first. Just one. I closed the refrigerator door and stood holding the handle.
There were a million things I could be doing: going into town; catching a movie at the museum; calling Sylvie.
It’s only one glass, for God’s sake. One cigarette.
Like in a dream, the refrigerator was open again, the cap was off the Lillet, and I was pouring it, and all of Madame’s half gallon of Smimoff, down the sink. Out the kitchen window, I could see her at the picnic table, painting, the blue glass at her elbow.
I wrote her a note:
Had a near miss with the Lillet, so I poured it out. Also poured out your vodka. I’ve discovered I can’t tolerate alcohol in the house at all. Hope you understand. Gone to run some errands, back by five.
Then I left for the three o’clock Saturday AA meeting.
When I was a kid, Madame and my father traveled a lot, but when she was home she and I would take long walks in the city. She’d pack a few sandwiches and apples and some juice and her paints and her art guides, and we’d walk together for hours, sometimes talking, sometimes not. She liked not knowing where we were going. She liked ending up places.
She’s not your average lush: she paints, reads voraciously, collects bizarre hatpins and old photographs of hats. She used to do outlandish things, like swim nude in Maine in early summer because she found it “invigorating.” Once, my father found her shooting rats off the rafters of their barn at Naskeag Point. She’d picked off five in the course of a week, hauled them up by their tails, and flung them into the woods. I remember her lying in the tub in that old barn, studying her pile of Audubon nature guides, a cigarette always burning in the porcelain ashtray nearby. She’d quiz me on wildflowers and ferns, the differences between mammals and reptiles, amphibians and birds. I remember how her long, dark nipples shocked me. She would not hide them, as I imagined other mothers did. She’d scrub the wild shag of dark hair between her legs like some sighing, scratching animal while asking me what I wanted to be for Halloween or how I was doing with my phonics. I’d sit on the toilet in my play clothes. Why did I stay there, watching her, answering her questions? I was embarrassed for her, for myself. I’ve never known what to do in her presence, and I suppose she likes it that way. Deal with it has always been her attitude. Deal with me.
After the AA meeting, I went to a bookstore and bought two paperbacks, then to the library. I wanted to give myself some distance, let Madame have time to see my note and figure out how she felt about it before I returned.
She was sitting in the porch chair again when I arrived. “I made us some hors d’oeuvres,” she said. “Chevre and crackers and some of those great olives you get at that fancy co-op of yours. They’re inside.”
“Great,” I said. “I’m starved.” She seemed OK. She had come up for my birthday, after all. And she was paying my rent. Really, she was being so good. I stepped through the front door.
“Right there on the counter,” she called after me.
And there was my grandmother’s silver tray, polished and shining, a ring of little water crackers arranged on it in a circle around a mound of carefully shaped chevre with a sprinkling of pepper, parsley, and lemon shavings on top. And around the chevre, like a little moat, a circle of dark olives.
And next to the tray, a brand-new half gallon of Smirnoff.
I went into the bathroom and stared into the mirror: just my slightly round, pale face, with me hiding somewhere inside. I tried to imagine walking out to the porch and confronting her, telling her that her drinking was making it impossible for me to be around her, but I couldn’t. The idea was ridiculous: me like a wind-up carnival doll with a crazy mechanical voice playing the same words over and over; her sitting back in the wicker chair with her New Yorker face on.
I picked up the tray on my way back to the porch.
“Bill T. Jones is at seven,” Madame said. “The lamb shouldn’t be too much longer.” She cut into the chevre, spread it on a cracker, and handed me the knife. “I got the cheese at this new little place on Church Street; what’s it called, the catering place? Crawford’s? Christie’s?”
“Crosby’s,” I said.
“Yes, exactly. Crosby’s. Try it; it’s lovely.” She was still holding out the knife, but I ignored her and sat down on the top step. I could hear the sawing noise of a jet somewhere behind the clouds.
“Mom?” I said.
She didn’t answer.
I imagined the jet’s path as a pink line arcing across the map, like in a cartoon.
“It’s such a lovely evening,” Madame said after a while.
I could hear the ice in her glass. She’d be holding it in both hands, like a cup of cocoa on a snowy morning. In my mind I saw her from the plane: a small black speck on a porch on the side of a hill in Massachusetts.
“Mom,” I said again, looking at her.
She was holding the blue glass just the way I had imagined. Then she lowered it and looked at me, waiting.
I shook my head. There were too many words and not enough.
Madame set the glass down carefully and picked up her magazine. “What you don’t seem to understand, Eloise,” she said calmly, smoothing the page on her lap, “is that I support you. I always have. I support you 100 percent.”
She shook her hair back, slipped on her glasses, and began reading. Beyond the clouds, the jet grew fainter and fainter until I could no longer hear it at all.