This is the first chapter of my novel about a single mom raising two boys, one with bipolar and one with anxiety. I want the novel to show how mental health issues often aren’t limited to one generation but are linked, one generation to the next. If this sounds like my bio, that’s because this is a pretty fictionalized version of my experience.
I would love to hear any comments that you have about the topics I raise or the way I have written this. I have been working on it for a long time, but I would like to share my ideas at this point. I’m planning to post a chapter every other day or so, and the novel is complete, so you don’t need to worry that I’m going to leave you in the middle. Elisabeth.
Chapter 1 (2002)
The sun was shining straight across the hills into her kitchen, as Erin washed the last of the dishes. Through the window she could see her neighbor in the yard behind her duplex, bent over her vegetable patch, picking weeds. She had on rubber boots and khaki shorts and a tie-dyed t-shirt. She looked happy. The sun was low in the sky, but there was still plenty of light for gardening, and Erin hadn’t turned on the light in the kitchen yet.
She placed the last of the colorful, mismatched plates in the dish drainer and emptied out the sink. She opened the cupboard that was meant to hold Tupperware, but she couldn’t find a top and a bottom that matched and weren’t ridiculously too large for the last little serving of macaroni and cheese. She yanked hard at the plastic wrap as she tore off a piece, covering the plate and pushing it to the back of the fridge. Hopefully one of the boys would eat it before she did.
She went back to wipe the table, and she heard the guinea pig whistle to her from the next room, thinking she might be bringing him some food. She went and pulled a lettuce leaf from the bag in the fridge, washed it, shook it and walked through to the next room. As she came in, the small, dark-haired animal put his front legs up on the side of the cage, anticipating. She popped open the top of the cage and handed him the lettuce. He grabbed it eagerly with his long front teeth and retreated.
From this room she could hear both of the twin boys next door practicing “Ruffles and Flourishes,” saxophone and trumpet, their intonations still dissonant, and the exclamations of Martin and Pete down the hall as they played with their father. He had found a game that they all liked to play together, and just about every night after dinner the three of them would gather around the tiny old MacIntosh Classic that had been Erin’s first computer and play Airburst Extreme.
She walked down the hall now and found them in a tight cluster around the glow of the screen. Pete was only two, but he loved to stand next to his father, bouncing up and down with excitement. He had a little more hair now than he’d been born with, but Erin knew better than to fret, since Martin too had been fairly bald for quite a while. Both of them had their father’s blue eyes. Pete seemed to have more of Gabe’s Slavic cheek bones under pale skin. Everyone said Martin looked just like her: big eyes, snub nose and freckles, but much blonder than she was. They both looked at her for the briefest of instants and then turned back to their game. Martin’s hair was plastered to his head as usual when he was playing intensely. He’d been jumping up and down.
“Easy on the jumping, Martin. I know it’s great exercise, but John downstairs may not enjoy all that noise at this hour.”
“I’ll try, Mimi. But it’s really hard to hold still.” His jumping slowed just slightly and he flapped his arms more vigorously. “Get him, Dad! Go on, hurry!”
Gabe was sitting between them on an old wooden chair, his halo of curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, the epitome of the computer geek. He was wearing a t-shirt he’d owned for years, a pair of old black jeans and some sneakers that he’d bought to lope around Benicia. He didn’t own a car, so he got from place to place either by bike or via a slow jog. There weren’t a lot of pedestrians in town, so a lot of people knew who he was because of his transportation habits.
“OK. OK. I am doing my best here. We have time for one more game, and then it’s time for dessert, books and bed.”
“Oh, no! Dad it’s not that late, is it?”
“It’s almost 8.”
Erin turned and walked into the living room, where she picked up the book she was reading. She wouldn’t have time to read much, but perhaps she would be able to continue after the boys fell asleep. She was working on an idea for a paper on memoir, but it had been slow going. She had just slipped in below the surface of the ideas when the boys came running into the room.
“Time to put on your pjs?”
“Yeah! Dad’s getting ice cream.”
They went down the hall to the boys’ bedroom, and she wrestled them out of their clothes and into their pjs. By the time Erin walked back into the living room, Gabe was sitting between the boys on the overstuffed jade green sofa. Each of them had a bowl of ice cream.
“Are we going to read some more Harry Potter tonight?”
“I’m not in the mood for Harry Potter,” Martin moaned.
“Well then, how about some shorter books?”
“Yay! Pete, let’s each pick three.”
At six, Martin had a tremendous vocabulary, but he still preferred the ritual of reading his favorite books from when he was a smaller child. He and Pete went and picked from their large collection.
“Not that one! You know I don’t like that one!”
“Now, Martin. You each get to pick three. Let Pete pick what he likes.”
“But he’s picking that one because he knows I hate it.”
“What are you picking?”
“I was going to have these three, but if he’s picking that one, then I’m taking this one that he doesn’t like.”
Pete’s little face started to crumple. “Martin, that book is scary. It has monsters in it.”
Erin said, “Martin, come on. We’re Quakers. We don’t try to get back at people. We try to be peaceful, right?”
“But he started it. He made me mad first.”
“He wasn’t trying to.”
Gabe came over.
“Okay, you two. I am going to pick the last two books, so that will enforce peacefulness, okay?” Erin shot him a look. “Let’s read this and this.”
“Dad! Not those.”
“Yes, dad, those. Tomorrow we can discuss it again when we’re not so tired. Now, come on, or I won’t read any of them.”
Reluctantly, Martin and Pete followed him to the couch and climbed up.
Twenty minutes later, Gabe closed the last book. “Okay, you monkeys, it’s time for you to go to bed. Go brush your teeth. I will see you tomorrow night. Oh, no wait, tomorrow is Tuesday. I will see you the night after tomorrow night. So you be good, and don’t give your mom too much trouble.” He kissed each of them on the top of the head.
“Okay, dad. Good-night,” Martin called as he led Pete down the hall to the bathroom.
Gabe picked up his backpack and opened the front door to go.
“Peacefulness by fiat?” Erin asked.
“Well, we are the parents. We don’t always have to treat them as equals.”
“Well, I’ll see you Wednesday. You know how to find me.” He went out the front door and down the front steps and began his slow jog back toward the loft where he lived.