The Ford Explorer glides down the Grapevine, the nickname given the last giant slope of the mountain range that separates Southern California from the state’s Central Valley. We dive headlong down through the perennial blanket of grey clouds that hang, depressingly, over this place in the winter months. It is late November, and I am headed back into a cultural and emotional wasteland of vineyards, orchards, endless pastures and bland, uninspiring towns with bland, uninspiring names like Earlimart and Goshen. I am heading into the valley of my youth, the place I struggled for years to escape. I am heading into this place that evinces only feelings of hopelessness, despair and floundering restlessness. But perhaps most agitating of all: my mother is driving the car that is taking me there, against my will.
My head resting against the passenger window, my tired eyes half-register the still-familiar scenery as it passes by: the angled furrows of plowed fields creating a strobe-like visual effect: grain silos, occasional clusters of cattle, and an abundance of weathered Christian and Pro-Life billboards, one of which proclaims block-letter loudly: “Follow Jesus or Go to Hell.” With its wealth of agriculture – endless expanses of orchards, cattle ranches and vineyards – a stranger might find this part of the Golden State charming, at the very least. There is nothing remotely charming about it to me, though, having grown up gay and closeted in this dust-bowl-migration-settled, ultra conservative, west coast buckle of the bible belt. To me, living here had always felt like being involuntarily enrolled in an intensive, years-long study of The Art of Not Belonging.
I steal a surreptitious glance at my mother, studying her through a thick haze of lingering antipsychotic medication and simple exhaustion. I see a nearly sixty-year old woman who I love dearly, and my heart breaks for a moment as I think of the pain and worry I have caused her. The sadness is immediately replaced by a bitter resentment, and I realize that I blame her, on some level, for this journey I do not want to be taking.
If she hadn’t been so willing to agree…no, collude with Patrick’s demand that I go directly to live with her instead of coming home with him, I might have been able to convince him, once again, that I would change. I’d get clean, I’d go back to program, I’d do anything. I promise. I promise. I mean it this time, I’ve learned my lesson! Instead, upon being released from the Psych ward at Glendale Memorial just a little over an hour ago, walking through the parking garage with Patrick and trying to tear the plastic ID band from my wrist, I noticed my mother up ahead, standing next to our Explorer.
Which, strangely, was parked next to our CRV. Why were both of our cars here? Confused at first, happy in that moment to see her, I started to speak.
“Mom? What are…” Then, I noticed that the back of the Explorer was packed to the roof liner with my belongings. I saw, among the hastily stuffed-in piles of clothing pressed against the back window, the grey power cord of my iMac snaked along the glass like some bizarre modern art meets herpetology exhibit.
So, it was done. After 13 years together, our home was no longer going to be my home.
I had thought about resisting, about gathering some of my clothes and belongings that were within arms reach (why, thank you – so convenient!) stuffing them into a bag and heading out on foot to Sycamore Park near our Mount Washington home. I’d slept on occasion in a small gully at the back of the park that backed up to the 110 freeway a few of the times when Patrick had grown frightened of my behavior and changed the locks. Even in the summer, though, it was a noisy, sad, uncomfortable existence, and I had little desire to seek refuge there on a cold winter night.
I turned and faced Patrick, and said icily, “Fuck you.”
I waited for the pain to show on his face, the usual sharp flinch, the heart-breaking “please, I love you, don’t talk to me that way” crinkle of his eyes. By now we were both fairly used to this routine. But this time, all I saw was steely resolve in his eyes, in the angry set of his jaw.
Shit, I thought. He’s serious this time.
Then his eyes had suddenly welled up, and as he opened his arms and took a step forward, I had my words ready: another “fuck you,” for certain, and maybe a “don’t you fucking touch me, you bastard.”
Then, I realized he was moving to hug my mother, not me. Then suddenly they were both crying, holding each other tight, shaking and sobbing and annoying the living hell out of me.
They’re crying? I’m basically being kidnapped…yes, kidnapped – freshly freed from a weeklong lunatic pajama party – and forced to move back to fucking shithole Turlock with my mother and they’re crying? What kind of bullshit was this?
I wanted to punch them both, grab them each by the hair and clank their heads together hard, three stooges-style. Instead, I climbed angrily into the passenger seat, started to pull the door closed, then stopped to yell hoarsely, “you’d better have all my stuff in here or I will drive back and fucking steal every fucking thing you own, you stupid motherfucker!”
Now, as the Explorer forges north into the valley, I feel another surge of anger at this woman who has been interfering for so long in my private life. Every relapse, every hospitalization lately has ended with a visit from my mother. Her visits are so frequent that I’ve become jealous of the close relationship she has formed with my partner, even as my relationship with him has deteriorated. Huddled at the kitchen table, talking in whispers, a clearing of throats and sudden silence when I’d enter the room. Conspiracy, it felt like. Still feels like.
Fortunately, in this moment, I am too numb to lash out at her. The last three weeks – the meth binge, the psychosis, the police, the involuntary commitment and the inundation with sedatives and antipsychotics have been so completely enervating, so absolutely soul-destroying, that there is no fight left in me. Finally, I am out of options, I have burned every bridge, and I am too depleted even for tears.
I redirect my gaze to the two lanes of Highway 99 as they fly by under the hood, and my hazy consciousness drifts, fighting off the panic and despair that threaten to overwhelm me completely. I can’t beat back the feeling that I am heading in the wrong direction, in every sense. Literally, figuratively, metaphorically, emotionally, physically. The sense of failure, the sense of loss, grows with every mile that we place between this vehicle and Los Angeles…and Patrick. But I can’t think about Patrick right now, because I know that what he is feeling at this very moment is not despair. I am as certain as I am of anything right now that what he is experiencing is a feeling of relief. Relief that I am now someone else’s problem, relief that he can focus on putting the building blocks of his life back together – without fear that the giant, ham-fisted toddler I’ve become will knock them over again.
Turlock gets closer with every minute and it is almost too much to comprehend that I am going back there, involuntarily, to live with my mother. I am returning in disgrace to a place I’ve regarded with resentment and distaste for as long as I can remember. I am broke, I am sick, and I feel like I will never be right again. Too much has happened, too many people have been hurt, and I have disgraced and debased myself far beyond the human spirit’s capacity to heal. It feels as if I am being driven to my own death, and the greatest sadness I feel is the knowing that death probably won’t come, that I might actually have to live through whatever it waiting for me at the end of this drive.
I’ve learned over the last few years that even death doesn’t take me seriously: I’ve courted it, pleaded for it, smoked, slammed, fucked and sucked my way towards it. I’ve fallen into comas on it’s doorstep, but have always been pulled back at the last minute by some intervention, some quirk of circumstance: Patrick arrive home a moment before the flatline, a crack team of paramedics, a skilled surgeon, or the simple genetic factor of a former runner’s horse-strong heart.
I startle as I see a face in the reflection of the sunlight in the windshield, glaring at me, gently shimmering along with the light. I close my eyes, open them again, and it is gone. The faces have been with me for years now, watching, judging, condemning. Always silent and vaguely malevolent, they have stared back at me from mirrors and other reflective surfaces. Gradually, over the years of my methamphetamine use, these faces have grown more threatening, and have slowly become more three-dimensional, more solid in form, often half-human, half-animal. Recently, I have begun to hear them whispering to me. Urging me to suicide, reaffirming my worthlessness, heartily concurring that I have no good reason for which to live. The antipsychotics dished out in the mental ward over the past couple of weeks – the Seroquel, the Risperdal – successfully diminish these apparitions and their voices, but have not eradicated them completely.
The drive continues in silence, and at some point I fall asleep, lulled into slumber by the continued monotony of the landscape.
I wake up when the vehicle stops, three hours later, and I realize we are home. More precisely, we are at my mother’s house, the house I grew up in and which I still reflexively refer to as home even though I’ve not lived there for over 20 years. I silently vow that I will never, ever make the mistake of calling this place home. Home is the house in Mount Washington, home is the house where my dogs Jane and Steve and Sherman live.
As she turns off the ignition, my mother looks over at me, and she makes an obvious attempt to mask her concern with an overenthusiastic smile.
“We’re here,” she says, a little too brightly.
“Yup,” I reply grimly, looking away from her and back at the green, nondescript tract house.
“I know your brother is looking forward to seeing you,” she almost chirps, a cartoon Disney bluebird terribly out-of-place in this sordid pulp fiction reality.
structurally, the house is exactly as it has always been, since it was built in 1976. The contents have changed over the years, walls repainted, floors re-laid, but the essence of this house and the people, situations and emotions it held are still stunningly intact. The presence of my father, who was divorced from my mother years ago and has since moved to Louisiana, is still apparent in the some of the disturbingly bad Do It Yourself work. Small things – crooked bookshelves, an unevenly tiled bathroom floor – still provide stark evidence of his apparent inability to wield a level or read a tape measure correctly.
My younger brother, Rob, greets me in the living room. He and his fiancé have temporarily moved back in with my mother while they save money to buy a house, converting the two-car garage into a large living space. His welcome is almost too cheerful, as if he’s been practicing it in the mirror to make it sound convincing. I study his eyes, and I discern immediately that the figurative “Golden Boy” sash I’d worn for so many years is no longer just stained and frayed, but has vanished completely. I have always been the one in the family who tried everything, and succeeded at most of it. I was the individualist, the non-conformist, the sexual adventurer, the one who shared exciting stories of a life lived without fear or provincial, prudish limitations.
Now, I am the sick one, the jobless one; the one who makes our mother cry.
My almost-two-decades parole from this place – my own personal hell – has been rescinded , and it is time to begin paying for my sins.