My childhood took place in the 1980s. i cut my baby teeth on the cardboard record sleeve of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. Ronald Reagan was president. Mr. Macaroni Mouth, I used to call him: I don’t remember why. Kathi had a special salute whenever his dour face appeared on TV.
“Ba fungul,” she said, brushing her hand under her chin. She flicked her thumb against her top front teeth, shot a middle finger into the air, pretended to spit. “He was an actor, you know. Not even a good one. Westerns. Glorified soap operas.”
My mother hated Ronald Reagan so much that I assumed she knew him intimately—that he was just another of the many in a revolving door of friends she was always complaining had ripped her off. As my mother saw it, the things Reagan was saying about her were getting low-down and personal. What she meant, of course, was her demographic—the single mother on welfare. It seemed every other night there was a special feature on the evening news reviling these women, until they became the fictional antagonist of the straining American economy. Mum took things like this to heart.
There were plenty of times when Kathi was capable of performing the role of the empowered, hardworking single mother. At Christmas, for example, she would take on a second, sometimes third job as a cashier at the local toy franchise just so she could get her hands on the coveted toy of the season. One year it was a pig-faced doll with a cowlick of orange yarn, which I later abused mercilessly by beating its oversize plastic head against the sidewalk. Kathi had hidden this doll under her register so that when the mad rush was over and the store had sold out there would be one left for me, one that she could pay for on layaway.
If there was an indulgence that could be purchased, my mother would find the money for it, any extracurricular curiosity I entertained had her whipping out the checkbook so she could pay someone to nurture it. This is how I became a passionate child-dilettante of ballet, photography, oceanography, and conversational French. At some point when I was eight or nine, I connected the notes of a famous classical piece I heard in cartoons to its composer, Beethoven. Kathi was so thrilled she bought me tickets to a children’s series at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Every Saturday morning for six weeks, I rode with a troupe of young classical enthusiasts and their parents on a school bus into the city. Knowing she would never be able to wake up in time to drive me to the rendezvous point, Kathi hired a taxi to take me there and paid in advance. When I expressed an interest in computers, she waitressed at a Colonial-themed restaurant that made her wear a bonnet for the Sunday brunch shift. She worked every weekend for two months, long enough to buy me a brand-new Apple IIe, then called in sick one morning and never went back. She worked stints as a bartender, a salesgirl in a tourist attraction presiding over a lobster tank, and a canteen truck driver. This was my favorite of her jobs, though it didn’t last long. I enjoyed the endless stock of Kit-Kats and getting to ride in a great big truck with my mum. She did not enjoy getting up before dawn every day. I think the only reason she took that job in the first place was to go boyfriend hunting, but her prince was not to be found at a construction site.
Kathi was once inspired by an ad on TV to sign up for a course in TV/VCR repair. I remember seeing the thick hardcover textbook open on our coffee table, every single sentence ablaze with my mother’s pink highlighter. A razor and a shortened straw lay on a dish nearby. I think she went to the first two classes before quitting. In a pinch Kathi would sell cocaine, but, like waiting tables, it was a temporary means to an end, never something she counted on as her primary vocation.
Then there were periods when my mother was just as happy to sleep all day and collect welfare. On the first of the month she would hop around our apartment, waving her check at me and singing, “Free Money Day! Free Money Day!” I danced at her heels, rattling off the list of toys I had been dreaming about since the dissipation of last month’s check. My mother would spend every dime of her welfare check immediately on cocaine, new clothes, new coloring books and dolls, and maybe a night or two of take-out Chinese. We lived on the leftovers for as long as possible. By the end of the month we’d be fisting the couch for loose change and I’d be off to the corner store with a pocket full of quarters to buy milk, Slim Jims, and cigarettes.
The two of us lived in the basement of the house her father had built when she was in high school. She rented the one-bedroom apartment from her mother, who charged a hundred dollars a month, or whatever my mother was able to give her. Her brother lived in the big house upstairs, first with a group of single guys and later with his wife and kids, and paid the same monthly amount to his mother, who lived next door in the little ramshackle camp where the whole family had started out a generation earlier. Mum called our plot of land the Ruta Compound.
“We’re just like the Kennedys,” she said.
where and when we got the name Ruta I have no idea. There is no one I can safely ask, as the members of my tribe are notorious throughout the North Shore as a band of lunatics who lie even when the truth would do just as well. So I don’t know when the first Rutas got on that boat to cross the Atlantic or what port bit its thumb at them in a final farewell, only that some of us hail from a blister in the boot of Italy, the rest from that rock the boot’s aiming to kick out of the Adriatic, Sicily, and that all this emigrating was an old story by the time my grandmother was born.
After his tour in World War II, my grandfather bought a tiny summer cottage on a river in Danvers, Massachusetts, winterized it as cheaply as possible, and set up his family there. The street was called Eden Glen Avenue, a dead-end road surrounded on three sides by a river and a salt marsh. My mother grew up there and twenty years later, so did I.
Our home was always too hot, too cold, and too small, but worth it, my mother insisted, because when we left our windows open we could smell the tides going in and out. Out back was a field of tall, feathery reeds fringed by tidal flats of black mud. The river flowed into the Atlantic less than a mile past our house. Generations of swans nested in the marsh. Like my family, they had been living there since before I was born. Every summer a harem of seals swam down from the Arctic and piled on a floating dock in the middle of the river. My mother, grandmother, aunts, and I would all walk down to the beach at the end of Eden Glen to say hello to them, a homecoming parade that marked the official beginning of our summer. The seals lay one on top of another and sunned themselves all day long, fat and serene in their big glistening pile. Occasionally, and for no reason I could ever discern, the whole pod would start barking at the same time. Then, just as suddenly, they would fall silent.
These animals, this river—it all belonged to us. I decided this in the way that only children and dictators assume things, by pointing a finger and saying it is so.
i was afraid of everything in the natural and supernatural worlds and a river is the nexus of both. The waters surrounding Eden Glen were home to riptides, toxic waste, dragons, sharks, ghosts, naiads, and, in the phragmites growing up on the banks, bloodsucking Lyme ticks. Not until my teens—my late teens, really—was I brave enough to walk to the river alone. Before that I would get close to the water only if my mother or my grandmother came with me. We’d climb down the little hill to the tiny beach that surfaced at low tide. On clear summer nights, we’d cut through a path in the backyard to the small pier built by my grandfather years before. The pier was a scenic place to watch the sun set, brood, and slap mosquitoes on one another’s arms. No one had the patience for fishing and, besides, you couldn’t eat anything caught off Eden Glen. The river was too polluted, first by a shoe factory on another tributary a century earlier, and later by the yacht club across the channel from us. The boats were always spilling gasoline into the water, and they thought the shallow water near our house was the best place to flush their toilets. I remember the grotesque beauty of those hot summer days, when petroleum rainbows would encircle thousands of dollops of floating human shit. I would stare in stupefied wonder, as at so many mandalas rising and falling on the surface of the water.
The family that owned the yacht club lived next door to us, and for their crimes against the river my mother would spit on the ground whenever she saw them drive by. “Your baby’s going to come out mongoloid for what you did to that water,” she once yelled as the pregnant wife drove past our house.
“Mum!” I gasped. “Her window was down. She might have heard you.”
“Good,” my mother said.
The river was one of the few things in this world that Kathi felt like protecting. For a while she volunteered with local environmentalists who dispatched her to collect samples of river water in coded plastic vials. She woke before dawn and sneaked into our neighbors’ yards to take photographs of the marsh grass they mowed illegally and the seawalls they weren’t supposed to build. There was a lawsuit at one point, and my mother couldn’t wait to take the stand.
“Maybe I’ll become a lawyer,” she mused.
Real-life lawsuits are utterly lacking in the drama she craved, and, like anything in Mum’s care, she gave up when the fight became more work than fun.
With or without my mother’s help, some official code was eventually passed, and the boats were instructed to flush their heads farther out at sea. I never dipped a toe in that water even then, no longer from fear but from spite. My mother already had so little attention to give that sharing her with anything else made me mortally pissed off. I watched that river through the windows of our house like a jilted lover studying her rival. It was the ultimate antagonist, always beautiful and never the same. Sometimes the waves licked the grass gently, like a dog attending to his fur. A strong wind would later chop the water into a rhythmic progression of crests. These sudsy waves might later shrink into the tiniest ripples. Or disappear altogether, like the day I noticed that the surface of the river was as smooth as a pane of glass. I stood at the kitchen window and stared, elated and afraid. What caused this to happen? Would it ever happen again? What did it mean?
The Porter River, I learned it was called years and years after I left home. It was always just the River to us. Growing up, I thought that my mother was the one who called in the tides.
kathi and i were the two most outrageous snobs ever to receive public assistance. My mother had grown up middle-class and, despite the succession of menial jobs she held, she refused to let go of certain standards. No matter how broke Mum was, she would find a way to outfit me in designer clothes. The telephone was sometimes cut off for nonpayment, but you’d better believe she paid that cable bill on time. Groceries could wait another day, but Calvin Klein and HBO could not.
I remember nights when Mum would get really high and keep me up for hours, sitting on my bed and holding forth like a monarch unjustly deposed. We were not meant for this life, she would say. There were Cadillacs in our future. A summerhouse on Martha’s Vineyard. I was going to grow up and marry a Kennedy, she promised. In reality she sent me to a day-care center run by Catholic Charities, where I contracted diseases only babies in Third World countries still get.
We made do with what we had, and for what we lacked we pretended. Learning our parts from our two favorite movies, Mommie Dearest and Reversal of Fortune, my mother and I would act out scenes in our tiny basement apartment, speaking in affected voices, wishing out loud that we could be the twisted, tormented millionaires who dominated our imagination. My mother was Sunny von Bülow, the bleach-blond tyrant in yet another coma, and I was her devoted maid, trying to wake her up. “My lady,” I would say, brandishing a feather duster, as I stood fretfully at her bedside. She was Joan Crawford, the abusive egomaniac, and I was her tortured Christina. Mum chased me around the apartment with a clothes hanger as though she were going to beat me. I would run from her in a fit of giggles, and when I finally let her catch me, she’d pin me to the bed, the hanger raised above her head. She would bite her lower lip and bring the hanger down hard and fast, stopping herself an inch, sometimes less than an inch, above my face.
“Wire hangers!” she’d cry out. It was our favorite game.
during kathi’s sedentary spells, which could last anywhere between a couple of days or several weeks, she lay regally in her bed consuming four or five movies in a row. My mother was both a movie slut and a film snob: she’d watch just about anything that was on, but she would press Record only if the story was truly great.
“What are you doing?” she’d call from under the covers, a smoldering ashtray always close by braiding threads of cigarette smoke in the air like a loom. “Make me some toast,” she’d yell. “Don’t be stingy with the butter.” Soup, a fresh book of matches, some chocolate milk—these were the things I was constantly fetching for her. Then sometimes she’d bellow, “Honey! You have to watch this movie with me.”
“I’m doing my homework.”
“This is more important. I promise. You’ll thank me later.”
Excerpted from With or Without You by Domenica Ruta. Copyright © 2013 by Domenica Ruta. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.