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She always came home late.
When I heard the sound of a bottle smashing on the street, I knew it was her. I would always get up and pull open the front door, since she never remembered a key. She’d be standing there, swaying, the shards of the bottle at her feet glittering in the dim light of the street lamps.
“Mom?” I would say softly, like I was speaking to an injured animal.
In a way, I was.
She would turn slowly toward me. Her long, dark hair was always tangled and matted when she came home at night, a rat’s nest perched on top of her head. Her eyes were always glassy marbles, gazing blankly at me.
“Mom?” I would repeat, louder, and run outside.
It was cold out in winter, and dark in the places that the street lamps didn’t reach. The moon would stare down at her with its wide, pale eye. “Don’t stare,” I would whisper meekly. “It’s rude.”
I would hurry down the porch steps and into the street. I would grab her quivering hand, feel her cold, rubbery skin against mine, and lead her inside.
Her overall griminess was thrown into greater relief indoors, where it was brighter. Even though I saw it nearly every day, I was always shocked. Her thin body was as gaunt and bleached-looking as a skeleton. Her large T-shirt hung off her, dotted with dark stains.
She looked at me and narrowed her eyes.
“I’m worried about you. Maybe you shouldn’t be drinking so much. The doctor says you’re just going to kill yourself.” She already was.
And then the explosion would come. “I’ll drink as much as I want, for God’s sake!” she’d snap, jabbing me hard in the chest. “It’s no business of yours how much I drink, you stupid, ungrateful little brat!” She’d jam her face right up close to mine, breathing her rancid breath in my face.
Sometimes she would push me. Once I fell and hit my head with a crunch against the wall. I sat up with an egg-sized lump sticking out of my skull.
And I would slink off to bed, eyes puffy, as she settled down at the kitchen table with a cigarette between her fingers. I imagined her lungs turning black as I undressed. I put my head beneath the covers so the meaty stench of the smoke wouldn’t reach me.
In the morning, she would be sitting at the table in a fluffy pink robe, drinking coffee and reading the paper. Her hair would be a glossy curtain floating around her shoulders, freshly washed. Her skin would look full again. She would look at me with love in her warm brown eyes.
“Hey, sweetie,” she’d say cheerfully, like nothing was wrong at all.
I’d just sink wordlessly into my chair and pour my cereal.
She reached over and ran her fingers through my hair. “I wanted to talk about last night.”
I would respond with a short grunt.
“You know I didn’t mean those things I said, right? I would never call you... those things with a clear mind. I’m so sorry. You know that, right?”
I did know. I nodded and crunched on my breakfast.
“I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t mean it. I really didn’t.”
“I know,” I would always mumble. I would try to smile.
She beamed. “Sweet girl. I knew you’d understand. I’ll never say those things to you again. I’ll come home early tonight. I can’t just keep leaving you all alone. I promise.” Right here, she would always put her hand under my chin and lift my head so I had to look her in the eyes. “Okay?”
“Okay,” I would tell her, even though she would inevitably snap that promise in half like a twig later that very same day. And then the next morning she’d be saying these same things again. And then she’d break the promise. Again.
It was a cycle.
“I know I’m not taking very good care of myself,” she’d say. “But whatever happens, I’ll always be with you. Always. Remember that.”
“I know, Mom.”
“Sweet girl,” she’d repeat, and hold out her arms. “Give me a hug.”
And I would. I’d wrap my arms around her and I’d put as much feeling into that hug as I could, because I knew she was teetering dangerously on the edge of death.