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How living with my alcoholic mother taught me what not to do

Once upon a time, there is a little girl.  Blink and wink and that is me. I am inside a bar, looking out at you.  You squint.  You’ve never seen such a thing—a toddler on a stool in a bar filled with smoke.  You have your own daughter at your hip, and her hair is in braids; you accomplished that just this morning while the kettle was whistling. Your husband was nearby, and he smiled at you as he poured you tea.  The Beatles were on the radio, regretfully so.

You wonder where my mother is, and you ask this without saying a word.  I wave towards the back of the saloon, where my mom’s red hair is falling over her forehead as she keeps her hand of cards away from the eyes of the men she’s playing poker with.  There’s a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray in front of her.  You hold your own daughter closer still.

When you see me again, I am twelve years old, on a stoop in the snow.  It’s early morning, and the streets are quiet.  I am savoring the silence.  It’s been a night of terrors.  You sit beside me.  You listen.

Midnight.  I was huddled in bed under sheets stained with cat piss and soup in the condemned studio I share with my mom in the outskirts of Pavia, in Northern Italy.  Three mangy, skeletal cats are beside me, and I held them against my angry, hungry stomach.  They clawed my skin while trying to escape my desperation.

There is no electricity where I live.  There is no water.  There is no heat.  The bills have not been paid for months; no one knows that a girl on the cusp of her teens lives in the studio.

It snowed last night.  You know this; you saw it too.  The glass on our windows is broken and light shone through as I tried to find warmth. The snow was a murmur and a spell outside the window.  If it were not for the condition I was in, it would have been terribly romantic.

When my mother came home, it was almost 2 am.  She was all stumble and rage.  Pray to the saints, my grandmother used to tell me.  So I did: Saint Rita, Saint Joseph, Saint Caterina.  I prayed until I ran out of names.

“Satan, where are you?” my mother yelled.  I stopped breathing, and my voice hitched in my throat.  Her fists hit the Formica cabinets. She cried, and I didn’t have enough strength to get out of bed to try to console her.  Her sobs drilled holes in my heart.  When she fell asleep, her head on bruised knuckles, her skirt half way down her thighs, I tiptoed out of bed.  The kitchen was wrecked; the cabinets destroyed.  The studio smelled like a winery.

The cats fell asleep while I cleaned up the aftermath of my mother’s binge.  It had been going on for days.

You hand me your rosary.  I wrap it around my fingers.  When you leave, I admire the way your hair falls just so.  I don’t know how long I will survive out here, but I am certain of this: I will never become prey to the beast that is booze.

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