Content Warning: The following story contains reference to loving someone with an addiction.
"On Moving Forward," Ali
Whenever I leave my girlfriend’s house in the morning, I always have to allot myself twenty minutes to get to main campus.
I don’t mind this; I love walking. Whether it’s to music, or just to the life of the streets in Somerville, the act of walking allows me to energize my thoughts, and to feel their depth move in line with the incline of Summer Street. It’s almost as if they become a tangible thing, a knot I can work out just by choosing to step forward, again and again—but, sometimes, when things aren’t that deep, it’s nice to just stand at the top of a hill and think, “With my own two feet, I made it here myself.”
May 12th brought the spring semester of my Junior year, and my final exams, to a close. I had woken up a little earlier than usual, setting a louder alarm for 9:00 a.m. in hopes for studying my Spanish II notes. There wasn’t anything I was sincerely concerned about, but I knew reviewing the material would give me greater comfort walking into my test. As I was sitting cross-legged on top of her yellow, floral-patterned bed, my partner nudged me in the side of my thigh, rolling over. “Try not to worry too much.” she mumbled.
After a quick shower, I began to gather my things into my backpack, stowing them away for later in the day: my laptop, hidden behind my girlfriend’s bed; my extra, gray sweater, folded over the wooden chair of her desk; my shoes, which had retired underneath her pink towel, and elicited expletives that were whispered with fervency in their search. I only found my phone as it began to ring, its vibration humming loud enough for my partner to stir. “All good?” she asked, lifting her voice and propping herself onto her elbow.
I waved a hand, and in a single motion, she fell back to the pillow. As I looked to the screen, I didn’t recognize the number; it had a 617 area-code, and my phone said it was from Jamaica Plain. I normally didn’t pick up unknown numbers, mainly because I’m too anxious to make small-talk to somebody I don’t know, but this seemed local.
Standing in the center of her room, I was so caught up in the act of making a decision that I actually missed the call. “Shit,” I groaned, and pulled the other strap of my backpack over my shoulder. Slipping out of my girlfriend’s room and through her front door, I started my trek down her street, crawling my way to Somerville Avenue. If I had left any later, I would actually be tardy for the start of my exam.
Popping my headphones into my ears, I kept thinking about the phone call. Although I could not quite articulate it, there was something about this that felt hurried, and rushed. Even the way it rang seemed to have a sense of urgency in its tone, annoyance, almost, creeping into each bzzz, bzzz, the more I had ignored it. Who had called me from JP? And would they call—
I felt my palm vibrate as the number reappeared once more. White, stark digits against a darkened background, I tried to memorize their order, whispering them to myself once before answering. I needed to know I could call back, if possible.
Although I could not place it immediately, I knew the voice from somewhere. It was a woman’s voice, and she sounded older. “Yes?”
“This is Mrs. Grane, your mother’s landlady. I’m sorry for calling you this early in the morning.” An accent accompanied this voice now, and it influenced the weight in which she placed her words. She spoke slowly.
I had only met Mrs. Grane once, in passing, a few months previously. She was an on-call nurse at a nearby hospital in Dorchester, and often spent the afternoons sleeping. Even shaking my hand that one evening, I felt the callouses of her toughened fingertips and the deepened grooves within her palms. She was a woman who had seen it all—she was a woman who didn’t fuck around.
I didn’t realize how quickly I walked until I found myself at the base of my girlfriend’s road, my knees trembling as I looked to my feet. The sun’s shadows were cast with the faint tracing of the morning light, and although the day promised beauty, my chest was beginning to heave a wreckage. I didn’t need to be the daughter of an alcoholic to know that this news, whatever it was, was not going to be good.
“Please, don’t apologize,” I began, turning the corner onto Summer Street. I continued my route to class, my free thumb looping around the strap of my backpack. “How are you?”
Mrs. Grane answered honestly, and to the point. “I’m not too good… I’m not too good. I’m calling to let you know that your mother—she’s not well. She’s very ill.”
As Mrs. Grane spoke, I kept walking. My phone was pressed to my ear as I did, and often, she kept telling me to calm down, or to take a breath, or to stop crying. She explained to me every, single, excruciating detail of my mother’s relapse—she spared nothing. She recited the words, verbatim, that my mother had used to plead with Mrs. Grane, crawling toward her on her knees as she begged for help. She told me how many empty bottles she found in my mother’s house when she was at the hospital. She told me I had to pack up her things soon, because she was evicting her two weeks later.
Since I began college, my mother has relapsed once a year, and almost always around the same time. In the beginning of my freshman year, it was my father and then-partner who helped me move into my college dorm room that sticky, August afternoon. I couldn’t ask her opinions on the menial things, like room décor, what kind of stationary to buy, or even how to take effective notes in my classes, because she wasn’t there.
She was finishing the last month of her three-month rehabilitation program, which she had begun in the previous May. The last time I had seen was in a Marshall’s parking lot, wishing me well for my first semester as her ex-husband drove her back to New Hampshire. With my mother moving to Boston a year later, I thought there would be a change. I thought, and hoped, that this would be the part of her life where this ends, where she can find balance, and her own definition of normalcy again. But it’s still not like that.
By the end of Mrs. Grane’s phone call, I had arrived to campus, five minutes before my exam. Steadying my voice, I thanked her; her response was flat, but sincere before she hung up, the sharp click of the other end’s disconnection echoing in my head. Shoving my phone into my backpack, I sunk into a patio chair and wept, because there wasn’t a way to put it beautifully: this hurt me. A lot.
When I collected myself, I stood in the center of my campus with a lingering sense of confusion, wondering how I managed to arrive here when I thought of it: choosing to step forward again and again was my strongest way of survival. It’s difficult and frustrating and downright heartbreaking when someone you are supposed to love seems to turn to their addiction more than to you. It’s especially hard to admit that out loud, to hear the ring of its truth sing past your lips. But I think my sanity has come in knowing that the more I choose to move forward, the less inclined I am to allow her behaviors influence my actions. By doing this, I have been able to find goals to move toward, passions to pursue; my love for writing, my yearning to always learn more. I found these things all on my own, and there’s a comfort in that. I’m an entirely different person than my mother, simply because of the steps I took by myself.
My exam was supposed to start in two minutes from then. Rubbing the backs of my hands beneath my eyes, I chose to step forward. I took the test.
About the Art:
For this piece, I wanted to create an image that would represent what this survivor does to keep moving forward every day. Lacing up her Vans, and taking life one step at a time.
I hope this can serve as a reminder for Ali that even when the going gets tough, slipping on your shoes, and putting your best foot forward is what you need to do to survive. I'm so proud of her resilience, and I know that even in times when family is stressful to her, she has created her own family of friends who will help her through anything.