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When the media looks back on your life, they will point to one night in particular that supposedly begins your transition from a “normal” kid to a pathological young man bound for large-scale violence, and it starts at Alfredo Café in Earl Heights. Your mother waits tables here, and she is getting cut from her section two hours early. It’s been a slow night. Her last table wrote on the check, “I already give God 10 percent, why should you get 15?” She is folding napkins with Amy, a coworker who usually spends her shift talking about celebrity crushes. Amy asks your mom out for a drink. She knows the band playing at Stroman’s tonight. She has a cute shirt your mom can change into. She’ll drive.
In the low-lit employee bathroom, Amy’s tank top sucks in your mom’s stomach and exaggerates the squareness of her shoulders. While twisting in the cloudy mirror, she tries to imagine getting buzzed from a few drinks, then coming home to your half-awake father in this shirt. This is important because, recently, your mom has needed to imagine she is having sex with your father in order to come, which includes the moments she’s actually having sex with him. Even on top, looking down, she has to re-imagine some earlier time, when it was somehow better, even though it’s the same person she’s seeing, from the same angle. She’s worried that she can only be attracted to your father’s avatar. Alcohol usually helps.
The guy Amy knows is Joe Graves, a one-man-band who plays frantic country-blues with a stomp box, banjo, harmonica, and a swift, nasally voice that captures the room’s attention like shattering glass. He has red suspenders and a pointy beard. Amy is clearly taken by him, as she’s on her third vodka tonic by the time Joe’s set ends, and is in that drunken state where she feels her body is some courageous puppet of her thoughts. Amy keeps saying, “Should I talk to him?” And your mother responds, “Yeah don’t you know him?” But Amy is not listening. She is taking the hairband from her wrist and fastening her hair into a bun. She is following Joe into the smoker’s pit outside.
It’s the only bar in this part of town that doesn’t allow smoking inside, and the smoker’s pit is just a large cage made with chicken wire and plywood. Your mom is leaning against the wire, the pattern digging into her shoulders, when a young man wearing a tie starts talking to her. He gives her a business card, which has DJ TODD and VOICE TALENT printed at the bottom. It’s that time of the night when everyone has new drinks but no one remembers buying them.
Then your mom is in Amy’s car, a 1987 Toyota Hatchback that looks like a giant roller skate. They are on a county road. Oncoming vehicles are flicking their brights on and off with measured confidence. Your mom is speeding through the galaxy of variables that many media reporters, nine years later, will latch onto, saying that what is about to happen is the main reason you did the thing that no one can understand. You did not emerge from the sanctity of a normal nuclear family—that’s what they will find most reassuring.
The first officer on the scene finds Amy’s car wedged beneath the rear of a parked tractor-trailer, like a doorstop. The driver’s seat is empty. The roof is peeled off the top of the car, and something like steam is coming out of the fully reclined passenger seat. Moving forward, when he has the angle to look down into the vehicle, he finds a body so crushed it looks inside out, uncreated. He realizes that the steam is actually coming from the still-warm insides of your mother, and for a moment he watches as it floats away and blends into the early morning fog, past the bare trees and into the expressionless sky.
You actually don’t remember the next week of your life. The darkness defends it from your knowing. Within this darkness, you attend your mother’s funeral. Amy is put in an emergency psychiatric facility for a month (they found her in the woods after the crash with only a few scratches, on the phone with her parents). Your father files a wrongful death suit against her, seeking $600,000 in damages. The suit gets dismissed.
The first time you cry, or remember crying, is two weeks later, when you overhear your father on the phone. He says, “A son losing his mother is the single most traumatic thing that can happen to a boy Eli’s age.” And the fact that you cry instantaneously makes you think there is something wrong with the way you grieve. It makes you think that you can’t actually be sad unless someone else spells it out for you.
In the year that follows, a therapist named Anne instructs you to play with puppets and draw scenes of your life with colored pencils. But you don’t feel like you’re meeting with someone. You feel like you’re in a waiting room, losing yourself in the dusty speckled carpet. Eventually, Anne diagnoses you with something called “adjustment disorder,” which your father refers to as a “bogus condition” since its only treatment is more therapy, something he can no longer afford.
You and your father become coequals in desperation. He brings you into the living room and calls your mom’s cell on speakerphone so the two of you can hear her voice. He tells you she sang “Moon River” in the shower. She wanted to teach you violin. She had this way of helping people find themselves through her. But eventually, the result is that his image of her becomes superimposed over your own memories. Your mother becomes like a moment you only remember because a photograph of it exists. So when your father wants to talk, you start hiding. You lock yourself in the bathroom with magazines and bowls of cereal. You lie on the plush bathroom rug and look up at the bluish light coming through the frosted window, pretending you’re part of a sci-fi experiment. You’re in a pod that has been shot into outer space. Your father kicks in the door once, only to realize you’re not hurting anyone, being in there. He leaves you alone after that, starts shitting in the yard behind the shed. You stay in the bathroom for five hours. For ten. For seventeen. He just wants you to be close and safe, but years later, he will wonder if this taught you to value control, secrecy, and disconnection, that love compensates for nothing. He will picture all those hours you spent alone, scanning the room with no object in mind, finding fleeting splotches in your peripheral vision—a crow, a beetle—and worry that you were actually going somewhere very far away.