My Return to Hell House is one of the better visits to my childhood home. My father isn’t here. His mistress isn’t here. My aunt and friends are here. The main prize is here: my parents’ nearly new washer/dryer. Last month, my brother looked the machines over and wished we could take them back to his place with our mother Iris (not her real name). Money’s tight—especially with this stunt our father pulled—and their washer no longer spins all the water out of their clothes. Sopping wet laundry will be a bigger problem now that Iris is moving in temporarily as we sort out her care. That moment I made a vow:
As God is my witness, I will get that washer/dryer to my brother and sister-in-law.
We load the U-Haul with surprisingly few things. The washer/dryer first. The mattress and box spring. A small combination lamp/table. About a dozen boxes and a few small items. That, and the clothes and personal items we moved last month, are all my mother is leaving with after forty-two years of marriage.
Some things have disappeared since our last visit. Our father has removed the food from the fridge and pantry, the closets and bedroom furniture are not quite empty but not as full either. No one lives here.
“My client says his wife has been accusing him for years of having an affair, but it’s not true,” opposing counsel told our lawyer a few days ago.
My father’s lie is staggering, both because it’s unnecessary (Florida is a no-fault divorce state; his affair impacts the divorce not at all) and because it’s cruel. How dare he make my mother sound crazy in order to deny the very thing he’s doing?
What else has he falsely accused her of?
We finish loading as the sun sets. I head out to dinner with a friend and her husband, catching up on twelve years’ of our lives. I laugh more than I have in a long, long time. Then I tell the story of how my marriage ended. I’ve known this friend since I was nine. We went through school together, through college. She knows The Ex. I admit his infidelities shouldn’t have been a surprise given what we knew about him in college. She cuts through my fumbling and shame to comfort me.
“We all thought he loved you,” she says. “We all thought he’d changed.”
Her husband gives me a sardonic look and I plead youth. But my nineteen-year-old, romantic-comedy-addled brain makes me cringe.
This morning I wake up late and cold, there’s been a rare freeze overnight and it’s fifty-nine degrees in my aunt’s house. I hug her goodbye and drive off in a U-Haul loaded with my mother’s few possessions. Here we are linking together, functioning as a team, to handle this crisis. If we can do this, why is my family falling apart?
Although I’m driving a puny ten-foot U-Haul, I’m nervous. I tell myself to chill. When I was twenty, the Ex and I drove a fifteen-foot U-Haul with attached car from Florida to California. The truck shimmied if we went over 55mph. At least that’s how I remember it. Back then, we could have been saying, “Whoa. This thing shakes when you hit eighty-five. Better keep it below eighty.”
Then again, maybe not. About an hour and a half into today’s drive, I discover this U-Haul won’t go faster than 75mph. If I need a little juice to pass someone, it ain’t gonna happen. I decide to stay out of the left-hand lane.
On that long ago trip, as well as this one, I spent a lot of time flipping through radio channels. Back then, every hour or so we hit a new radio area and at least one channel was playing Alanis Morrissette’s You Oughta Know. It became the theme song of our cross-country trip.
“She scares me,” The Ex would say.
“I like her,” I always replied, cackling at the implied threat in my favorite lyrics: Does she know how you told me / You’d hold me until you died / ‘Til you died, but you’re still alive.
I find the song on my iPhone and blast it though the tinny speakers. It could be the theme song for the end of our relationship, too.
I roll into Georgia. My mind wanders; I miss the welcome sign, but I know where I am by the billboards advertising “Asian Bed and Breakfast Spa” and “Jade Spa” and “Asian Massage”—managing to be both racist and exploitive. I have a little fantasy that every man who visits one of these places has his dick turn green and fall off. One “spa” billboard shows a fist thrusting through a circle or hole. Either that’s a coded message about their services or I’ve got an incredibly dirty mind.
Exiting the freeway, I pull into a gas station. On the other side of the pump, a good-looking blond guy says, “Moving?”
“No, just moving my mother’s stuff up to Georgia.”
“She’s going to live with you?” he asks.
“With my brother for now. I’m just in charge of the stuff.”
“I love my mother to death,” he grins, affection obvious in his voice. “But living with her would drive me crazy.”
I smile back but I want to tell him to count his blessings. Annoying she may be, but she’s no doubt a mom. Iris’s cognitive disabilities make a mother-daughter type bond impossible; our roles reversed when I was young. Her mental illness diagnosis doesn’t explain everything. We’re hoping that the upcoming psychological assessments will help us understand what’s been going on all these years … and what to do now that we’re responsible for her care.