IF NOTHING CHANGES
by Angelique Stevens
I was twelve and sitting in the back of the Number 5 city bus with a bag of cheap Christmas presents when I saw my dad stagger up the steps. I was about to call to him but stopped myself. He had fumbled with his change too long to be sober. I slunk in my seat and tried to make myself invisible. He lurched his way to the front, talking and spitting as he moved. I watched him from behind my propped-up arm and wished it were any other night but Christmas Eve.
There were times when Dad’s drunkenness didn’t matter, when it was almost enjoyable. Those few months when Mom’s psychotic breaks put her back into the state hospital, he would come home loaded and give my older sister, Gina, and me money to buy fried clams and hush puppies. He never knew how much money he put into our hands, and he was often passed out by the time we got back. We lived off of Lake Avenue, a road that led straight through Rochester and ended at Lake Ontario. We were two streets from the water. Restaurants and clubs crowded the blocks closest to the beach. Picnickers and beachgoers packed the sidewalks. Late at night, bikers partied in the parking lot listening to Whitesnake and AC/DC, drinking Genesee Cream Ale. Busty women in short skirts and men in leather jackets spilled out of the nightclubs and rock bars. Summer evenings the strip was a powerful lure to two emerging teens. Gina and I often walked past the ice-cream parlor and into the park to sit on the swings and eat our hush puppies.
In our earlier years, when I was nine and Gina was ten, Dad had a sober stint. He moved far enough into his recovery that he actually chaired AA meetings. He would take Gina and me along when Mom was working or in the hospital again. We called the place The Workshop, but it was just a dark room in the basement of a downtown building that smelled like cigarettes and day-old coffee. We arrived a half hour before the meetings to set up the chairs, get the coffee and cups ready, and put out little aluminum ashtrays.
During that stretch of sobriety, we went to The Workshop with Dad two or three times a week. Sometimes Mom went too, for the company. It was like a second home with a second family, not all of whom were sober. One man named Francis always hung around The Workshop, begging for money outside, his pants diarrhea-stained. Before one meeting, he stumbled into the building’s foyer, where Gina and I had been playing. We backed up against the yellowed wall and watched as he took his pants down and squatted. I stood helpless while Gina ran into the other room to tell Dad. When he and two other men came out, they picked up Francis, pulled up his pants, and carried him outside.
Then there was Albert, who was a regular and a friend of Dad’s. One week, Albert brought a dilapidated wooden dollhouse for Gina and me. He said it was a thank-you gift for my dad, who had helped him through his recovery. Dad tied it down on top of our rusted wagon after the meeting. It was too big for our little apartment so we put it on the back lawn and there it sat, empty. Gina and I never played with it. We had no dolls or toys to fill it. It smelled of must and rotting wood and the rooms inside weren’t painted; it was just an oversized house with too many empty spaces. I don’t know what happened to it after that.
Before the meetings, Gina and I put our quarters into the collection bowl and poured our coffee with cream and sugar into Styrofoam cups, just like the adults. Then we took our seats in the back on aluminum folding chairs. When it was time to start, my dad said a few words and everybody stood and made a circle. Gina and I grasped hands with the adults on either side of us and recited the Serenity Prayer. Amidst those smoke-filled subterranean rooms we learned the prayer by heart. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Serenity, courage, and wisdom, those words became an absentminded chant, the white noise playing in the background of my life. I recognized AA slogans everywhere, though I didn’t understand the totality of them: “Think Think Think,” “One Day at a Time,” “Easy Does It,” “If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes.”
Then there were times when Dad’s drunkenness pervaded everything inside our home, especially when Mom’s schizophrenia sent her back into the hospital for a month-long stint. In that state, more than once he sent us up to our rooms without dinner because he thought it was later than it was. When we were inside, we learned to stay quiet and blend into the shadows, but even then, a giggle or the dropping of a toy could set him off. One night, he came home sputtering obscenities, pointing and arguing with his ghosts. He stumbled over a shoe in the living room and vomited on himself as he descended. I hid upstairs until morning. Another time, my friend was sleeping over and in the middle of the night, I bolted upright at the sound of Dad crashing into my room. I sat frozen and watched while he opened a dresser drawer and urinated into it before walking out.
Only two other people rode the bus that Christmas Eve, and they were watching him as if he himself were the sickness, like he might get up at any moment, lurch at them, and infect them, too. I was only grateful he hadn’t stained himself. We were still a couple of miles from home, and the snow was coming down an inch an hour when I pulled the string and slipped out through the back door. Outside, I took a deep breath of icy air and felt relieved. I didn’t know how long it would take Dad to get home, but maybe he would get in and pass out before I arrived.
Or maybe he would never make it. A month earlier, on the night before Thanksgiving, our neighbor, Sheila Lamartine, didn’t come home. Her daughters were twins and in seventh grade just like me. My sister and I talked to them now and then, but even though we lived on the same street, we came from different worlds. My family lived in the only rental property in the neighborhood, a duplex in desperate need of repair. The Lamartines owned the big house on the hill across the way. The girls took a bus every morning to their private school less than a mile up the road, while Gina and I walked twice as far to get to the city school.
Sometimes, the Lamartine girls seemed fascinated with us. Summer nights, we disappeared to the attic to get stoned and afterward, we camped on the roof outside my parents’ bedroom window. My mom watched us get our bedding set up and then fell asleep, Thorazine drifting through her veins. Late at night after my parents were both passed out, we would climb down the tree that touched the roof and walk over to the lake where the bikers were. The twins saw us sneaking out once. They were just getting dropped off in front of their house from some school event as we reached the ground and they questioned us. Wouldn’t our parents find out? Weren’t we worried about getting into trouble? Weren’t we scared to go down to the beach at night?
I was fascinated with them, too. I wanted to wear Catholic school skirts with crisp white shirts and ties. My sister and I had spent so many years sharing the same two pairs of pants, putrid orange polyester flairs and hand-me-down Levis. I resented the time I wasted every week tub-washing them when all I wanted was to burn them. The Lamartine twins had perfect white skin, noses that didn’t spread across their faces, and that lovely blonde hair always playfully up in ponytails. I fantasized about them coming home to family dinners around a big table, going to school games with friends, learning cheers together, writing in diaries, and dreaming of first kisses. In the summer, when their garage door was open, I spied on them through my living room window. I wanted to live in a real home with a garage where tools hung on the walls. My baby pictures had been lost somewhere among our dozens of moves, yet the hammers and screwdrivers in the Lamartine household had permanent status on that garage wall.
Sheila, however, never matched my image of the Lamartine’s perfect family. In my mind, she was my parents’ friend, not the twins’ mother. We overheard Dad’s stories about her being smashed at a bar he’d drunk at the night before. Some days, we heard about her passed out on a neighbor’s lawn. She came over to our apartment once in a while to have coffee with my mother. Her eyes sagged and her breath smelled of smoke and last night’s binge. I watched out the window one morning as my father went out for the paper and found Sheila on our front lawn. He carried her limp body up the hill and into her house. I imagined the girls inside their living room lounging on the floor in front of the TV, watching Scooby-Doo as my father lay Sheila down on the couch behind them. In all of our passing conversations, they never talked about their mother or her public drunkenness. They seemed strangely unmarred by her doings.
Then Thanksgiving came, and the Lamartines began searching for Sheila, who’d been gone all night. When the girls’ father came over to tell us she was missing, my dad went out with him. The turkey hadn’t come out of the oven yet when Dad returned, exhausted and grief-stricken. They had found Sheila underneath a nearby bridge. It seemed that she had passed out walking home from a bar the night before and had died of exposure.
One month later, I got off the bus and walked the same path down Lake Avenue toward home. The snow fell in thick heavy flakes that stuck to tree limbs and power lines. It was the kind of snow normal twelve-year-olds dream about on Christmas Eve. I thought about all the other things I had wished for instead—cheerleader uniforms, big dinners around a dining room table, crisp white shirts, and Christmas morning breakfasts. I took a deep breath as I passed the bridge. I opened my mouth; tasted the flakes on my tongue; and tried not to imagine my dad stepping off the bus, falling over the embankment, and freezing on the ground before morning.
Angelique teaches Creative Writing and Genocide Literature in Upstate, New York. Her writing can be found in Shark Reef, TravelMag, The Chattahoochee Review, and other anthologies. A travel writer and activist for human rights, she has lived in Chiapas, Mexico, to be a witness for peace with the Zapatista Rebels; volunteered in an elephant refuge in Thailand; studied Holocaust in Israel, writing in Paris, and water drilling in South Sudan. She has traveled to 12 countries on four continents. She finds her inspiration in being in places that push the boundaries of comfort, knowledge, experience, and hunger.
Image credit: Scott on Flickr