Michael plopped on the couch in front of the television. He was turning 13. As he stared at the screen, he thought about his ride home from school. He had noticed that his mom was a little different in the car. She didn’t talk as clearly as she usually did, and she didn’t listen as closely to his day’s stories.
Michael loved his mother very much. He loved her for how much she loved him. He loved their being together. Each morning his mom drove him to Grandma’s house, and each afternoon she picked him up. In the evenings they’d watch TV together, taking turns between what she wanted to watch and what he wanted to watch. Afterwards when he did his homework, she was just a room away.
From the couch, Michael heard his mom walking around in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinet doors. Then Michael heard her say to him, “I’m going upstairs to rest for a while.”
“Okay, Mom.” Michael answered, hiding his disappointment that she wouldn’t sit with him.
He no longer paid attention to the show. He began to worry. Over the past few years he was becoming more aware of these times when his mom needed to be by herself in a room, to stay there for hours, even for a day or more. It didn’t happen too often. It happened many weeks apart. So many that, just as he was about to forget, it happened again that his mom needed to be alone. He had been with his mom through her ups and downs. The downs started like this.
* * *
Tom headed home in his four-door Galant. The inside had heated up during the day while parked in the company lot, so he reached his right hand above his receding gray-brown hair and tilted open the sunroof. Cool air rushed in through the vents, over his khaki pants and around his cotton dress shirt. He pressed the tip of his right shoe a little harder on the gas pedal, and with a quick look over his left shoulder he merged onto I-294 north. All four lanes of traffic moved at 70 miles an hour. Tom kept his car back enough from those in front of him. Michael had taught him while playing the NASCAR video game to look several cars ahead for the wreck that was going to happen. To not get caught in it.
* * *
Cathy carried her cell phone as she walked up the carpeted stairs to the bedroom and continued into the adjoining bathroom. She closed the door and stepped toward the sink. Squatting, she opened the cabinet beneath, reached behind the rolls of toilette paper and plastic bottles of cleaning products, and pulled out a half-full bottle of vodka. She sat on the floor, leaned back against the clear shower door, and exhaled deeply. She lifted the bottle to her lips, tilted her head back, and drank. She felt the warm, stinging shot flow to the back of her mouth, rush down her throat and into her stomach. Her nerves began to relax. She felt guilty but it was too late. She knew that she would continue drinking into the evening.
* * *
Brake lights glowed red across all four lanes. This was the spot where traffic came to a stop. The long drive home was usually a drag, but it didn’t bother Tom this evening. He had tomorrow off. The start of the weekend and the warm weather allowed him to relax.
He thought about the weekend. Tonight he, Cathy, and Michael would watch a couple of movies. Tomorrow they’d get some things done around the house. Saturday they’d probably spend the day at her parents’ house. Cathy would visit with her mom, and he’d watch TV with her dad or maybe shoot baskets in the driveway with Michael and his cousins. Sunday they’d take a drive into Wisconsin and enjoy being away.
Tom liked the time he and Cathy spent together, whatever they’d do. In the two years up to their marriage they had been together every weekend. Even now, a year into it, Cathy’s companionship mattered more to Tom than her being blond, tall, and slim. They spent time together each day. In the morning while she’d get ready for work, he’d read to her from the paper a few articles he knew would make her laugh. Around lunchtime for a few minutes they’d talk on the phone. In the evening she’d make a small, simple dinner and they sit down together with Michael and talk about their days. And at the end of the evening as they would get ready to sleep, Tom would sometimes read to her a chapter he’d come across in a classic novel, a chapter he knew she’d like. And when they’d lie in the dark Cathy would hug him. Tom was able to sleep again. Cathy was keeping her promise to not drink, and it had ended their cycle of fighting.
* * *
Cathy hugged her knees as she sat on the bathroom floor. The late afternoon sun shone through the bathroom window onto her eyes, swollen and red from crying. She lifted the bottle and drank. She hated herself. Hated that this was who she was. Hated this thing within her that she had been fighting since her teens. The gradual build up of anxiety until she could do nothing but drink. Her anger and violence toward everyone repulsed by her drunkenness. Her pushing away those who loved her.
She had thought that marrying Tom would make her life better. Tom loved her and forgave her and took her back. He was good to Michael. But she needed certainty that Tom would stay. With each fight she sensed more and more that he was giving up on her.
Cathy told herself that before Tom would get home she’d stop. Everything would be fine and they’d get on with their weekend. It was now five o’clock and she knew that Tom would be getting ready to leave work. Still sitting on the floor she used her cell phone to call him.
* * *
Tom clicked on his right turn signal, checked his mirror to make sure it was clear, and moved onto the exit ramp. About twenty more minutes. Tom liked coming home to his family. He had never liked being on his own. He had been married before, right after college. His wife in that marriage had depended on him too much. He had helped her work through her problems, but he hadn’t realized he was making too many decisions for her. After a few years, and before they had any kids, she divorced him.
Years later Tom met Cathy. A divorced mother confidently raising her son, starting a career with a good company. He was drawn to her non-dependence. It let him think he wasn’t repeating his mistake.
Buzzing came from the cup holder and interrupted Tom’s thoughts. His cell phone. Tom concentrated on the traffic, kept his left hand on the steering wheel and felt for the phone with his right. At this time Cathy usually called him, so he wasn’t surprised when he saw her name on the screen.
“Hey Cathy.” Tom answered in a relaxed voice.
“Are you going to be home soon?”
Cathy was trying to speak carefully but Tom heard her slurring. It was easy to tell. Tom knew the immediate and significant effect alcohol had on her speech, and on her. His nerves now felt like they were vibrating and his stomach became upset.
Instantly Tom recalled the times when Cathy was drunk, when he and she yelled at each other and pushed each other. He hated it. He knew that when he would get home he would try to avoid her, but that she wouldn’t let him. He knew he would then get angry with her and it would make everything worse. He knew, although he truly wished there was a way that he could make the situation better, that he would not get himself to react any differently. The only thing he could do differently would be to not go home. But that didn’t make sense to him. He was not going to stay with his parents or a sister or a buddy. He was not going to spend the night at a hotel. He had done this too many times.
He answered in monotone, “I’m on my way home now.”
And Cathy heard in his voice his change of emotion, that he was again disappointed in her, would try to withdraw and ignore her, would again be distant from her. This hurt her the most. His making her feel as if he didn’t want her, didn’t need her, as if he had made a mistake in marrying her.