Creative Types

Mom hated that I was an artist. But she sure was creative as fuck when it came to hiding her alcohol. The perfume bottles that lined her vanity were sprayed in her mouth, not on her neck. Whiskey was her Chanel No. 5. She wore hollow pearls around her neck, each filled with a dab of wine. The heels on her pumps pulled off, their tips flipping open to reveal slim chambers of golden scotch. If you held the beak of the bird fascinator on her church hat up to your lips, a rush of brandy would fill your tongue and keep you warm as the priest reminded you of all the reasons why you were going to hell.

The only reason she still went to church was because the priest was a recovered alcoholic and he brought it up in his sermons often.

“You know, I respect that he doesn’t give all the credit to God,” she said over one Sunday dinner. “He did that shit, not God. Though why you would turn your life around only to become a celibate in this highway town is beyond me.” She said this as she slipped the thick scrunchie from her hair and unzipped a hidden pouch to reveal a slender tube of tequila.

Growing up, the other church ladies told their kids to stay away from the lady with liquor on her breath and her poor daughter too because alcoholism is genetic, you know. They speculated about what she kept in the gold bumble bee-shaped charm she wore on a chain around her neck every day. There wasn’t anything in it as far as I knew.

Mom was always going on about genetics too. She was a Korean War baby with a G.I. dad and a Korean mom out there somewhere whose wartime romance—or let’s face it, wartime fuck—left her an orphan adopted by world traveling do-gooders. She’d spent most of her formative years with the nanny in their beautiful D.C. suburban home for months at a time while they did mission trips to developing countries.

She was obsessed with every little genetic trait I picked up from her—my fat monolids, my attached earlobes, my middle toe that was longer than my big toe. How I could roll my tongue for the double r’s in Spanish class and my severe allergic reaction to grapefruit. She dressed us in matching pant suits for family photos until I was too old for that shit.

“You really are a little piece of me,” Mom sobbed at my thirteenth birthday party much to the horror of me and most of my friends. My mom as a drunk headcase really buoyed the school gossip channels for a few weeks. The pity was worse than the mockery, I think.

Dad finally left the year I turned 16. The final thing he packed was his three years sober medallion from AA. Before he left, I asked if I could keep it and he said no without hesitation, so I knew there was no point in asking if he would stay for me. The other day, I found an old briefcase of his in the back of a closet with a hidden compartment in the bottom where he’d once stashed flasks of bourbon. They were all empty.

I called him first when I got my acceptance letter to Cal Arts. I needed his support as a cushion for when I told Mom.

“We’re so proud of you,” he said. By we he meant he and his girlfriend, a rail thin white woman who flipped houses. Both divorced, my dad told me neither one of them was interested in remarriage.

“A piece of paper doesn’t equal love,” he told me at his sister’s wedding last June, tipsy on too many glasses of prosecco. I told my mom he’d said that when she pumped me for information about his new relationship after the wedding.

Her face had filled with satisfaction. “I told him that seventeen years ago, but he insisted. Now look at us. Writing something down doesn’t mean shit when it comes to love. You can only feel it in here.” She pressed her palm against my chest, her long red nails poking at my skin.

I thought of that moment when I handed her my Cal Arts acceptance letter.

“I’m not fucking paying for this,” she said, holding it by one corner when she handed it back to me, as if it were vermin. “I’m not paying all that money for my only daughter to move as humanly far as possible from me for a useless degree.”

I guess she thought I would eventually give in, attend SUNY Purchase instead. But I was sick of just about every inch of her. I was sick of opening the cabinet for an after-school snack and finding rum in the Cup-a-Soups, of worrying every time I heard the car start in the driveway late at night.

My grandparents were beyond thrilled to help me. I hadn’t seen them in more than ten years by then even though they were only three and a half hours away by bus. My grandfather showed me the watercolors he’d been working on since retiring, suggesting with a wink that artistic talent ran in the family even though we didn’t share the same blood and his paintings were paint-by-number kits for adults where you could erase the numbers and outlines afterwards. My grandmother kept stroking my hair like I was a cat and murmuring about “the lost years.” I let her because the $50k tuition was impossible to me; it hardly seemed like a real number.

Right before I left, on the porch of the beautiful three-story home my mother grew up in without them, my grandmother cupped my face in her hands.

“Your mother doesn’t mean to hurt you,” she told me solemnly, tears sparkling in her eyes like champagne. “She never knew where she came from. She never knew who she was. That trauma takes a long time to heal and she never put in the effort to try.”

I nodded, focusing on the softness of her skin on mine.

Mom found out about the visit of course.

“You went behind my back? After all I told you about them? How they abandoned me?” Her voice was rich with hurt but her eyes glittered with something beyond that.

“You kept them from me all these years! That isn’t fair. They didn’t do anything to me.”

“Oh, well who gives a shit about your old mother then, right?”

“Just because you don’t know where you come from doesn’t mean I can’t find out!”

Her cheeks reddened. “You think by meeting those people, those strangers, you know where you come from?” Her voice was low, dangerous. “Those people mean nothing to you. Just a piece of paper that says you’re related. Haven’t you learned how easily that can be destroyed?” She pulled my Cal Arts acceptance letter down from the fridge where I’d tacked it defiantly. When she tore it in half, it was like she’d slapped me across the face.

The rest of my senior year, Mom and I were like ships who hated each other passing in the night. I did all the research on dorm rooms, meal plans, and courses by myself. That fall, when I arrived at my dorm room, alone with just two suitcases, my roommate asked in a horrified whisper if my parents were dead.

“They’re busy traveling the world,” I told her.

I would receive word of Mom’s death while I was doing my own traveling after college on a Fulbright scholarship to study art history in Madrid. By that point, our relationship existed mostly online in likes and comments and the occasional emailed recipe. It wasn’t liver failure or a drunk driving accident or any of the other things I’d spent my whole life waiting for. She slipped on ice walking down our porch steps and hit her head. That’s all.

After the funeral, after my grandparents and my dad and all the other family who suddenly cared so much left, I sat alone at the kitchen table in our home. In my hands, I turned over the gold bumblebee necklace she had been wearing when she died. Its tiny diamond eyes glittered in the yellow overhead light. I noticed a faint line between the head and the body. With one soft yank, the head pulled clean off. I peered into the little bee body but I couldn’t see what was inside. I tipped it over slightly. A drop of red splashed into my palm. I fought the urge to hurl the pendant in the trash but then I looked closer. I sniffed at my palm. It was blood. I didn’t know whose.

I thought of Mom’s eyes, bloodshot the morning after a binge. I thought of her red, red nails always pointed accusingly at one person or another—most often me. I thought of her tongue, licking clean the salt from the edge of her glass.

I raised the little blood-filled bee body into the air. A toast. Then I drank it all.  

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