In #33 Russian Adventure Part II, you met the roommate I was assigned. The assignment was done without ambiguity because we were the only two who smoked. Everyone we saw in Central Asia and Russia smoked, mostly rugged Turkish tobacco. Not long after that trip I quit.
I referred to that roommate as Blanche. That isn’t her name but it is here. She had never been out of the country so this was a lavish international start for the widow from Louisiana. She was full of energy with crackling Louisiana phrases that did not translate into Russian. The two of us went off on our own one day in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and got so completely lost that all we did was laugh; finally realizing how rude that appeared in our host country.
Back in the U.S. she flew up from Louisiana to see Nadia who was visiting me from Russia. Then she traveled with us to Ohio. After all she had been a sport through the terrifying night outside of Moscow.
I still wasn’t ready to return to New York to work when Blanche invited me to visit Louisiana and then drive west to Santa Fe and Sedona. She knew they were favorites of mine. So in my sturdy Peugeot I headed south.
For a couple of eccentric days she showed me her patch of Louisiana, where it felt like I needed a passport. She took me to her psychic. She took me through a moss-covered alligator zone to see where they created Tabasco. I was not comfortable about how alligators scrambled right over the highway. We went for a night of Zydeco music and Cajun food. She then insisted on a late night stop at a hotel for some dancing. I waited in the lobby exhausted.
In the morning we headed west in her Cadillac. There were plenty of stories from our Russian adventures to jabber about. She insisted on driving.
Crossing Texas means one long drive. We went to a cave boasting the world’s largest population of bats. If you love millions of bats about dusk, and I don’t, it was phenomenal. There were stretches across Texas of such endless isolation it seemed to cancel out the overcrowded east.
It was somewhere in the middle of Texas when she mentioned that her behavior might be a bit erratic. Her doctor had put her on a hormone patch. She waited until Texas to warn me that when the patch wore down every few days or so, she did too.
By the time we reached stunning Taos it was a low point for her and a wasted stop for me. When we drove down to Santa Fe on the high mountain road, that’s where the hormone patch must have been on empty. Blanch started speeding on the wrong side of the road; the entire winding downhill road where you cannot see around each bend. She was trying to kill us. Or maybe she wasn’t considering that I would die too, but all I could do was hang on. The moment we got safely down, I reached to yank the keys from the ignition. She didn’t take that at all well, and tried to scratch my face with her long nails. I got out of the car and went into a shop hoping she would drive away. But she came into the shop behaving as though nothing had happened.
Most anyone reading this probably would have left after the drive through the alligator zone, but deep in the recesses of my mind, I was sure there was something I could do to help Blanche. Bam. There it is.
One morning we went into a fast food place for coffee. The smiling teen who waited on me was barked at by Blanche. The girl’s smile disappeared. Her shoulders slumped. I knew that negative energy was going to have to go somewhere. The next customer would get it, or her boyfriend when he picked her up at the end of the day. Blanche’s sharp bite wasn’t going away. And I’ve understood that about positive or negative energy since that moment.
Santa Fe, a favorite spot for me was a complete waste. I assumed she needed a new patch. She was gnawing to go to Las Vegas, not on our original plan. But we did. She gambled lots, loved the atmosphere and the ups and downs seemed to even out. But I wanted to get to Sedona and then back to life.
In Sedona we found a simple place to stay and took a morning tour of the Red Rocks. I had an accident there and the tour guide had to dash me back to the motel. Blanche returned furious with me because I had gotten blood on the jeep seat. When I say furious, I mean scary red faced screaming furious. So I searched for a flight back to Louisiana, my car, and sanity.
She cried and begged me to stay and listen to an explanation of her behavior. We went to breakfast where the ghost of Tennessee Williams made an appearance over pancakes and coffee as she told me the story.
Back home she managed her brother’s law office. Her grown son had molested the young son of her brother, causing a schism in the family including an arrest and a lawsuit. One night, angry about what her son had done to her life, she took the loaded revolver from her nightstand and went into her son’s room to kill him. I’ve forgotten what stopped her or if she just missed.
She seemed relieved by telling me the story, and I’m just giving you the highlights here. There was a similar story about her daughter.
I suggested that we drive back that day and that she start dealing with her family. She was pleasant, probably terrified about what she had confided in me. We made one stop on the way back, and I remember looking out my window hoping she had left during the night. She hadn’t.
The instant we got back to Louisiana I didn’t even go into the house where I assumed the revolver was still in the nightstand. I put my bag in my car and drove west right back to Santa Fe, determined to have some peaceful time there and I did.
Quoting the character Eleanor of Aquitaine from The Lion in Winter, “Every family has its ups and downs.” But when I returned safely to Pennsylvania, I wrote to Blanche saying I was sorry for her family troubles, but her behavior toward me was just too much.
There isn’t one photo of my mother actually holding me. That doesn’t mean she never did, but I have no memory of it. At night I was not told stories, read a book or sung songs. I have no memory of either parent in my room. There was no such thing as being tucked in. I was to go to sleep like a puppy. SCREECH! Hold on. A puppy has caring owners who wake when the puppy makes the slightest puppy peep.
It’s only in movies that parents come in to say goodnight. A parent coming in to our room meant trouble.
Before I could walk, I managed to get my chubby hands and knees below me, and my little tush in the air. I didn’t go to sleep. I’d rock myself. I’d rock and rock back and forth. The more I rocked the harder I’d rock. I would go so far forward my head would touch the mattress. And then I’d rock sitting back as hard as I could, over and over, instinctively to tire myself to fall asleep. I don’t think I was still in a crib, but whatever I was on moved, and I was the engine. Forward was stronger than backward and the bed traveled across the room I shared with my older brother.
It isn’t just that I have a vague memory of rocking, for I do. But after my father died, my mother told me a story. She told many of her stories after he died, and so there is no way of knowing what is true. I recently got a copy of my grandmother’s death certificate just to confirm that she really did hang herself as my mother told me the night my father died.
In conversation my mother would bring up subjects in such a non-sequitur way, I never learned how to react. When I was about 20, sitting in the kitchen, she was complaining about a chip in her china or the price of hamburger when she asked me if I remembered the rocking. This wasn’t going to be a pleasant trip through my baby book. She itemized just some of the ways I had purposely made life difficult for her. As if I made a little list in my crib at night. The rocking was an offense. It was a crime against her. I was a monstrous creature interfering with the precious mother’s sleep.
So one night when the rocking began, she sent my father into the room. And she said, “I don’t know what he did to you. But you never rocked yourself to sleep again.” And she grinned.
I’m sure I did, I was just quiet about it.