The Lesson

Mother-daughter day-drinking

“Hold your breath, or the fumes will choke you.”

My mother held a lowball glass to her chest, vodka glinting in the morning light, and said, “Then you swallow.” She raised her chin, peered from under thick glasses, and tossed a shot down her gullet.

She said we should take a break from chores. We were living in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, a suburb of Albuquerque. My stepfather, Gary, was not home.

She breathed through her nose and hissed out: “Then you take a breath.”

She poured another shot over ice and said, “Now it’s your turn.” She held out the glass.

I grimaced, but I also felt grown-up, mostly because I was thirteen and drinking booze was something grown-ups did. Also, the emotional and rational parts of my brain didn’t know each other yet.

“Oh, come on. Don’t be afraid. I want you to know how to act when you’re older, when you start going to parties.”

I took the glass, held it to my nose, sniffed.

“Don’t smell it. Hold your breath.”

I shrugged, sipped, gagged, and nearly dropped the glass. “Ohhh!” I hammed it up, gaped my mouth toward heaven, and said, “That’s terrible!”

My mother laughed. “You breathed in the fumes. That’s what makes you choke, not the taste.” She poured another shot and drank it demurely, as if she was having a spot of tea. “Would you like more?”

I shrugged, an ambivalent alcoholic-in-training. I would like to forget this, but I can’t. My mother was lonely and on the verge of her second divorce, this time from my stepdad. He would soon start fooling around with a sad woman whose son went to my brother’s karate class. My mother was drinking to forget her current reality. I took another drink, and the frigid spirits burned, an ice-cold flame, but the second time, I didn’t gag. I was a natural.

“It’s not so bad, right?”

This was a life lesson, not unlike end table dusting, window washing, laundry folding, and toilet scrubbing. Drinking would become our ritual.

A little while later, my mother proclaimed, “Girl, you need to learn to dance!”

She thought I should know the mambo, cumbia, merengue, and her beloved salsa. She also deemed the ability to incite a conga line a valuable life lesson. She turned on Paul Simon’s Graceland, an album that still signifies for me the beginning of a good time.

• • •

Ta-na-na. Ta-na-na-na. Soft voices drifted through the room, the distant hum of South Africans releasing themselves from the shackles of apartheid. My mother and I danced—no, bumped into walls—as we congaed to Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” We stumbled through the halls, cha-cha-ing past the vacuum. And why were we supposed to vacuum? Why always on a Saturday morning? Because. What if company came and an end table was not dusted? The shame.

Illustration by Stephen Knezovich

My mother danced toward the kitchen to refresh our glasses. She said, “Loosen up, baby girl.”

She grew me inside her body; seed of me sprouting into an amphibious blob, I was nourished by her, created inside her, but being raised by her is something I want to forget, something I fear I will repeat—because I am a mother now, too.

Paul Simon sang, the horn section blared, and my mother found me, clumsily performing a kick-ball-change step. She cackled and said, “That is not the beat, girl! You are dancing to the horns.”

Something I didn’t realize then but I know now: my mom was hammered. Also, I liked drinking vodka and cavorting in my PJs way more than scrubbing toilets. Who among my middle-school classmates would be allowed to drink vodka on a Saturday morning? None of them! I felt special and happy.

My mother coached me: “Lissen for the drums!”

I shook my hips and felt electric as Paul Simon sang, “Oooh ooohh ooooohhh.” One of my knees jutted left; the other bent low to the ground. Even though I couldn’t hear the beat she wanted me to hear, I did hear the garage door. I was pretty sure my stepdad wouldn’t like that I was drinking. An eighth-grader drinking vodka at ten in the morning—it’s not normal. But I was loyal to my mother, to the idea of divine motherhood. The archetype of mother—ever-loving, ever-giving, ever-nurturing—doesn’t mesh, not even a little, with who my mom was, but I clung to it for years. That was easier than realizing she was a flawed human. I worshipped my mom, yet living with her sometimes felt like watching a speeding train barrel through everything on its tracks. All she had to say was wooden spoon, her threat for spanking, and I stepped in line. Her threat of corporal punishment, like slugging down shots of vodka, is at war with the archetype, but never mind that. Fear, love—these two emotions cause similar sensations inside my body: the quaking, the quickening heart, the lightheadedness.

I didn’t question whether my family was the kind of organization that deserved my loyalty. I loved my family because it was mine. Logic never stood a chance. My stepfather marched into the living room and lowered the volume as my mother demonstrated a correct kick-ball-change. I froze mid-shimmy.

“Ezra, what are you doing?”

The lowball glass dripped with sweat; vodka vapors seeped from our skin.

“Are you two drunk?”

Silence. How many neurons in my brain didn’t properly fire because I was tanked?
“Mom says I have a high tolerance.”

Gary stomped around the living room and said, “I can’t believe you two.”

My mother interrupted, pushing out words as if they were covered in glue: “It’s OK. Jennifer ish my liddle dringking buddy. She doesn’t get drunk without adult supervish-uhn.”

About the Author

Schaller headshot
Jennifer Jordán Schaller

Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher living in Albuquerque. Her writing has appeared in Sonora Review; Georgetown Review; Brain, Child; Ascent; the New Mexico English Journal; and on NPR’s This American Life.

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One thought on “The Lesson

  1. I enjoyed this work! The
    I enjoyed this work! The beginning caused me to wonder where this would take me but as it progressed I gained a different appreciation for your combination of vivid action words and a variety of imagery! Great writing

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