ALL COLORS LEAD TO PLATINUM by Lynne Southerland
After three years clean, I’d fallen off the wagon again. I’d been wallowing in the mud for months when the universe decided to throw me a bone and get me arrested. Good because at least I was off the street and getting three square ones. Bad because they contacted my father – since, technically I’m still a minor. So instead of jail, I got rehab, which situation-wise falls somewhere in the purgatory between summer camp and prison.
Lots of people in group talk about having blackouts. But if I had to pick the color that has overshadowed my drug and alcohol induced states of oblivion for the past five years, it would have to be platinum. But it wasn’t until today’s session that I understood why. Something Charlie Fry, a meth freak since he was fifteen, said set it off.
Charlie and I go way back. We met at Riverside Retreat near New Hope when we were both fifteen. White would definitely be the color for that place which catered to people with deep pockets, or like in my father’s situation, for those who want their offspring to socialize with the kids of the moneybags set. I guess a rich drug addict is better than a poor one. Thousands of dollars later it appears that both of our parents had exchanged their arrogance for financial temperance and picked this way more modest facility in Manayunk, where the group is, shall I say, more diverse in palette.
It seemed that Charlie had gotten sidetracked from his primary purpose as the newbie to tell us how he had ended up back in rehab. He was riffing on how much he hates navy blue and some guy in a bar in South Philly wouldn’t take off his jacket of said horrifying color which was making Charlie seasick (his words). Turns out, Charlie wasn’t off point at all. He had K.O.ed jacket-man and ended up in juvi after a harrowing night in the adult detention center. Guess that’s the downside of passing as an adult.
His ramblings about his color sensitivities, forest green gives him a headache, baby blue reminds him of his binky, ignited chaos in the room as everyone chimed in with their pigment preferences, while I was suffering my own negative reaction to a blinding silver-white light searing my eyes.
“You okay?” Lesley our staff leader asked, silencing the room. All eyes focused on me, and my pounding head.
“I don’t know,” I answered while massaging my temples. “All this talk of color seems to be making me sick.”
I was just about to take up Lesley’s offer to be excused when it all flooded back, as clear as if the experience had just happened.
My sister, Peggy and I trail, wide-eyed, behind our father who is carrying two large suitcases. I’ve got on what I quickly recognize as my favorite pedal pushers, patterned with green and blue diamonds. It’s hard to believe that was only seven years ago. A lifetime ago, when my face still reflected the innocence owed to a ten year old.
Mommy (even the incorrigible me stills calls her that. Otherwise I might be completely lost down the toilet bowl of life). Anyway, Mommy follows us off the porch and down the stairs to street level where my father is already loading up the trunk of his brand new sedan. I always hated that he let her drive used cars while he rode in luxury – a perk of his job as a car salesman. It was only when she handed us our overstuffed straw tote bags that it hit me that she was still in her summer robe.
“Mommy, you gotta get dressed or we’ll be the last ones there,” I said, excited to start my two weeks at overnight camp.
She just stared at me like a zombie. Finally she shifted her eyes over to my father with a helpless look that was met with no response. She turned away, head hanging. I could feel a deep aching radiating from her. Peggy and I stood there, frozen. A childhood full of moments like these had trained us not to get in the middle of their ‘conversations’. Our four stiffened bodies looked like those arranged in a museum diorama on which a bronze plaque would denote ‘The Broken American Family’.
“Okay girls, let’s go,” my father ordered without a hint of recognition of her silent question.
I wanted to say, “what about Mommy?” But a childhood full of moments like these had trained me not to ask anything.
Under his watchful eye, Peggy and I skulked over to her and made a Mommy sandwich, hugging her so hard that the tears she had tried to hide turned to laughter and she squeezed us back. We pulled away slowly, uncomfortable to be leaving her fragile soul behind, heartbroken at his apparent lack of concern for her, but eager to get to the fun awaiting us at camp.
We took our usual seats, me in the front and Peggy behind the driver. I blew Mommy kisses and then watched her grow smaller and smaller as we motored away from her. He never even said goodbye.
He took East River Drive into Center City and pulled into a parking spot on Race Street.
“Hop in the back,” he said before shutting his door. “I won’t be long.”
I obeyed, but not without sneaking a look at the narrow row house building he entered. Peggy and I kept our heads low and our eyes locked on that doorway until he came out. Then we snapped our attention towards the front of the car and waited. A childhood full of sharply defined boundaries had taught us not to get caught spying on him.
Instead of coming to the driver’s side, he surprised us by opening the passenger door. In slipped a woman dressed like she was ready for a night on the town rather than taking a five hour drive to upstate New York to drop off a couple of kids. She didn’t bother to turn around and say hello until he’d gotten into the car.
“Girls, this is my friend Cindy.”
She turned towards us without shifting herself in the seat. “You must be Rocky,” she said, looking from the corner of her left eye. The blank look on my face masked the surge of feelings going on inside, from confusion to understanding to disappointment and finally anger. I could see his tight-jawed eyes waiting for my schooled response. I wanted to scream. I wanted to break out of the car. But a childhood full of fear of what might follow that look bent me to his will. I worked up my best fake smile.
“Yes. Nice to meet you.”
“And that means you’re Peggy,” her eyes didn’t have to strain to look in my sister’s direction. She turned back around and he drove off. She never said another word to us.
I couldn’t tell you much about her other than that she was stylish, white, and had shoulder-length platinum blonde hair. I looked at the back of that hair on and off for five hours. I watched as her well-manicured hands, adorned with cherry-red nail polish flipped down the visor to use the mirror. I watched while she pin-curled her pearly locks and wrapped a scarf around her head like she was Audrey Hepburn. I watched as those same hands played with the radio dial in search of a station with better reception. After my father said we were almost there, I watched as she unpinned her hair and styled it with a tiny, pocket comb. I watched as we drove through the one horse town a few minutes away from camp. He pulled in front of a bar.
“I’ll be back within the hour,” he said to her, withholding any indication of his fondness for her. I watched as she gathered her things, exited the car and retreated into the darkness behind the tavern door.
For five hours I had wanted to ask what all this meant. For five hours I had wanted to ask why he was acting like everything was normal; like that woman was our mother who loved to take family drives in the countryside, like we’d always been the children of an interracial couple. But after a childhood lacking in emotional availability, I knew not to bother.
I watched the back of his head as we continued on to camp in silence.
“For five hours I had stewed in my feelings until they had dried up and left me numb.”
“And how do you feel now that you’ve remembered this,” Lesley asked.
I began scanning my body for my feelings, but all I felt was pressure to perform, like on a quiz show that requires quick recall. I realized that after a childhood full of moments like those I had just remembered, that I had learned to submerge my feelings, so I could keep afloat. But the harbor I had constructed to protect me had been decaying from years of drink and drugs, leaving me listing on the edge of a life that was little more than existing and far from joy.
Revelation flooded forth as I understood that my feelings had never left me. However deeply they had sunk, they were still inside, aching to be remembered, longing for me to reconnect, to be whole again.
“Can you tell us what you’re feeling?” Lesley asked again.
“Hurt,” choked out through my tears. “He had made me his accomplice. And angry that he didn’t care enough about me to protect me from his dirty little life.”
Charlie held me close as the feelings filled me up. How I wished for a drink.