Kate Sloan has been the featured essayist at the Boston Reading series Literary Firsts, a recipient of the Jim Cash prize in creative nonfiction, and her work has appeared on idlermag.com and thereisnospoom. Sloan grew up in Michigan. Before moving to Boston, she went to Michigan State University (known in other parts of the country as “not U of M”). It was there that she worked on Fourth Genre, illicitly climbed her first fire escape, and learned how to use a semicolon. She currently spends her time getting paid to edit textbooks she vaguely understands while writing things she loves for free on the Internet. Her best friend is her dog; her dog’s best friend is any tennis ball.
Home is the Story
Home is the story we tell ourselves when we’re away.
The last time I believed in god I was sprinting through the Atlanta airport to make it to my sister’s wedding. The weekend she was slated to walk down the aisle, I returned home for the first time since moving to Boston. Over the summer I had loaded my worldly possessions, books mostly, into an F-150 and driven them across the country to a city I’d never been, for a job I wasn’t sure I could do. I planned to live there for a while. Maybe forever.
Clocking in at four months, this was the longest I’d ever been away from my family. I was twenty-four years old. These days the average time between visits has doubled, but then, it was forever.
It’s the quarter year I missed everything: the birth of my first niece to my eldest sister and her husband; my other sister’s wedding shower; countless nights of centerpiece making and invitation stuffing. I missed the dress fittings and shoe shopping. And I had missed my mother’s food, too, the absence of which had left me down two sizes–swimming in my gray silk bridesmaid dress.
On the wedding day I struggled to make the dress fit, tucking safety pins into the neckline like rosary beads. Little prayers of adhesion. I tied the sash tight and called it good. I wasn’t maid of honor, but at the reception I made the first toast. My grandma laughed. My sister glowed. My dress never came undone.
I danced with my mom. For once I didn’t have to pretend to be straight around extended family. Nobody asked if I had a boyfriend. No one expected me to fly a date home so soon after moving. I danced with my stepdad too, handsome in in the black suit he’d worn to walk my sister down the aisle.
I drank too much wine and laughed with my sisters. When the bride was away we coordinated other plans. My trip was three days, and this was day two.
I had been rehearsing day three for months. I’d composed lines and made lists. I’d read entire websites. I had taken all the necessary pains to make myself the most nervous I’d ever been. And then I talked myself down.
Day three was the intervention. When you disregard the bride, and children under 12, my sisters and I totaled four. We were a relay team about to confront the man who taught us to check our blind spots and to love the Three Stooges. The guy who was proud of me for standing up to a teacher and getting kicked out of geometry class. The guy who laughed instead of yelled, who said, “Who needs circles anyway?”
Growing up I didn’t know my stepdad drank. I couldn’t tell drunk from sober. I could barely tell cartoons from real life. Functional alcoholics don’t slur their words. They don’t stumble their steps. At 8, 9, 10, 14, you get in the car anyway. You turn up Springsteen on the radio. You buckle your seatbelt or you don’t. You don’t know better.
My mother had seen it for years. She complained about bottles tucked in drawers. She never got drunk because she never drank. Her sobriety made his every sip an insult, each a drop into the cup of her patience until, at last, after 16 years, it spilleth over. I tried hard to forgive her for overreacting.
It wasn’t until I graduated from college, after he and my mom divorced, that I saw the problem. In the harsh light of his newly single life, in the stark emptiness of his new apartment, there was more space to spot what I’d missed.
Maybe it was that without my mom, the bottles didn’t need to be so hidden. The alcohol didn’t need to be so measured. Those months that I was home after college I drank with him. Not to mute myself, though it was that a little, but more to reach him. Once you notice the warning bells, the only way to drown them out is to drown them. So we drank together.
My impulse is to blame myself. To wallow in my own complicity. To be that important. But the truth is no one has to be at fault. What I wanted in those moments was to spend time with the man who had been my father in so many ways, and the easiest way to do that and be happy was with gin.
We expect life to change in the big moments, the weddings and births and funerals, and it does. But it also changes over takeout and on a Saturday afternoon driving to the movies.
My little sister in the back seat singing along to the radio. She paused in the middle of the chorus, and yelled for the car to be put into turbo drive. Gravity pulled me back in the passenger’s seat as we sped past minivans and Jeeps, the children inside them watching princesses on their private, drop-down TVs. The weaving in and out of traffic, the close calls, the climbing speed, the mug he’d been drinking from before we left, my sister’s small voice yelling over the music—all of it shook me awake. I turned and smiled at her, my eyes searching for, and finding, the clasped seat belt over her light pink jeans. Her purple converse kicked against the driver’s seat in time with the song.
My legs shook as I exited the car, grateful for the two hours of dark stillness to follow; for a world of houses rising on balloons in the wind; that sobering interlude between finally seeing and the drive home.
Before I boarded the plane home for the wedding, I called my sisters. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way his hands shook when he helped me move to Boston. He spent days around my mother and little sister. Days with more diet coke than scotch.
When we arrived, football was on the flatscreen. We had brought Chinese food. When he offered drinks everyone was silent, until one of us who wasn’t me, finally asked for a coke.
I wasn’t the oldest but I made the first speech. I said everything I knew to say. I said I was scared. I said I didn’t want to lose him. I said I was losing him. Even when I knew he wasn’t hearing it. Even when he was disgusted and yelling too loudly to hear it. I said I loved him, didn’t blame him. Even when he had left, the front door slamming behind him. We all said everything we knew to say.
For weeks he didn’t call me. And for weeks after that I didn’t take his calls if I had had a drink, or was at a bar, or even out to dinner. And then one day I picked up the phone with one hand, glass of wine in the other. He was calling to tell me about AA. He was calling to tell me about the kids in juvie he goes to spend time with. He was calling to make me proud.
He asked me what I was doing, I said, making dinner, drinking wine. He said, “You know, I never cared for wine.”