Domenica Ruta's memoir, With or Without You, chronicles her youth in a working-class Massachusetts town, the daughter of a wildly flamboyant mother who drove a beat-up lime green hatchback, and held impromptu storm-watching parties on the porch. It's a raw but elegantly told tale, about living with a mother who was an addict and sometime dealer, who loved movies and let her daughter stay home from school when The Godfather was on television — and who would take that daughter along on an expedition to bash in the windshield of a woman who'd broken her brother's heart. In this scene, Ruta describes her mother's determination to get her into a better high school. With or Without You will be published Feb. 26.
According to my diary, I spent the first day of summer 1993 reorganizing my bureau and closet. When that was finished, I rooted underneath the bathroom sink to find dozens of bottles of lotion and shampoo, all one-eighth full, which I married off so that I could throw away the empties. I then pulled all the towels from the bathroom cupboards and refolded them so that they would stack more efficiently. After that I scrubbed the bathtub and trimmed the brown mildewed hem of the shower curtain. When my mother discovered that I had done this with her expensive, professional-grade salon scissors, she screamed and wailed and threw the scissors at me like a deranged circus act. The rest of the day and night I watched a marathon of Beavis and Butt-Head, my bedroom door closed but my ears focused on the sounds of Kathi's every movement.
"Now what?" I wrote in my journal. I was thirteen going on fourteen and my handwriting was tiny and painstakingly neat.
But a miracle would occur later that summer. My mother joined a Twelve-Step recovery program for people addicted to food. Eating was the least of Kathi's addictions, but this was definitely a move in the right direction. She went to a lot of support meetings and set aside time every day to pray for serenity, courage, and wisdom. She spent so much time on the phone talking to her sugar- abstinent friends that she had less energy to yell at me. She still blew up with the force of Mount Etna, but these eruptions were significantly less frequent, and sometimes she even apologized afterward.
Her life was now full of people she met at her meetings, and that summer those women became my friends. There was a woman named Crisanne who believed the actor Kevin Costner was communicating with her through the check engine light on her car's dashboard. Crisanne's entire family had years ago stopped speaking to her, for their own sanity and survival, so she turned to rooms full of strangers, people like my mother, to listen patiently to her hallucinations. Too crazy to hold down a job, she lived on Social Security. At least three times a week, she ate lunch at our house. She had curly brown hair down to her shoulders and often wore her clothing inside out by accident.
"Crisanne, Honey, go fix your shirt," my mother would say between drags of her cigarette. Crisanne would laugh and babble on as though no one else was there.
"The key to dealing with her," Mum whispered to me, "is to stop listening when she gets boring. Just think of something else to entertain yourself. All her stories have a pattern. They get a little predictable. Christ, the poor kid just wants to find love."
There was another Twelve-Stepper named Beth who was blind and frail. She had stringy gray hair and the gaunt cheekbones of a glue-sniffing orphan. At most, this woman weighed eighty pounds. Wherever Beth went she had to carry a pillow, because sitting in most chairs was too painful for her bony rear. I have no idea what this woman was doing in a support group for overeaters, but my mother found her there, and Beth became a regular at our house and in our car.
That same summer my mother's husband, Michael, had bought her a used, two-toned maroon-and-white Caddy Coupe Deville. This car didn't run, it sailed. Kathi loved any excuse to drive it and volunteered to serve as Beth's personal chauffeur. It was part of my mother's Twelve Steps — she had to make amends for her past sins, and, as she saw it, carting this blind lady around was one of the good and selfless deeds that she owed to the universe.
"Nikki, how old do you think Beth is?" my mother asked as we waited for one of Beth's many state- subsidized assistants to help her
out of her house and into our car.
"I don't know," I said. "Sixty?"
"Thirty-two!" Mum flicked her cigarette out the window and waved the smoke away from my face. "I'd rather be fat than look that old."
Summers in New England are hot, but they're also merciful. A heat wave will go on for three or four days, five at the absolute most, and then, without fail, a cool rain shower will break the spell. My mother and I would sit on the porch with Nonna and watch these summer storms the way other people watched the Boston Red Sox. Black clouds rolled across the sky, the river turned the color of smoke, and the three of us sat on the picnic table like giddy witches who had summoned the thunder with the power of our thoughts. We loved nothing so much as a lightning storm. If it happened during the day, my mother would stop everything to sit and watch it. If it came at night, she'd wake me up so that we could watch it together. We'd listen to the birds scream and scatter. The wind would swell with the momentum of a symphony until it ripped open the sky.
My mother saw storms as a cause for celebration, and that summer we had a full-fledged hurricane. She got on the phone before the lines were cut and called everyone she knew to come to our porch and watch the show. "Call your friends, Nikki," she said, forgetting in her excitement that I didn't have any. When no one showed up, she was totally baffled. She'd made a large bowl of ranch dip and chopped up celery and carrots. We had hors d'oeuvres and front-row seats. Why anyone would hide indoors was beyond her.
I huddled with her on the porch, tucking my knees inside my sweatshirt to keep warm. Reeds of phragmite six feet high swept flat across the marsh. The sky and the river were the same shade of gray. Everything was silent except for the wind.
"It must look gorgeous farther out," Mum said. "Up in Gloucester ..."
The next thing I knew we were in the car, driving into the heart of the storm. Mum followed a winding coastal road with a view of the ocean pretty much the whole way. Every now and then she veered off to the shoulder so that we could get a better look at what was happening out at sea. I rolled down the window and stuck my head out. Kathi pulled over on the peak of a rocky bluff. The waves were crashing higher than I'd ever seen in my life.
"It's spilling over the top! Onto the road!" I cried. It did not occur to me to be afraid. I was with my mother. We were in a Cadillac. What on this small planet had the power to hurt us?
The rest of that summer was sticky and hot. A mixture of humidity and cigarette smoke left a grimy film on my skin. Sleep was impossible. I woke up every hour drenched in sweat. One morning Kathi had the brilliant idea to strip the sheets off our beds and store them in the freezer during the day. We remade our beds that night, and seven minutes later we were as hot and miserable as ever.
"These fans — they just push the hot air around," my mother complained.
We went for long, aimless drives to cool ourselves off. Sometimes we'd invite Crisanne, who was always asking if we could stop somewhere and get ice cream. We'd pick up Beth and her pillow and take her to do errands. Beth had a guide dog named Kenny, a handsome, reserved German shepherd who sometimes came with us on our drives. I wasn't allowed to pat him — no one was — but his quiet, dutiful presence was something I could feel no matter how out of reach he was. Beth always spoke to him in a dissatisfied tone of voice and often threatened to get rid of him. Then, one day, she did.
"Where did he go? Can we find him and adopt him?" I begged my mother. "How can you be friends with a person who would do something like that?"
"There but for the grace of God go I," my mother said.
"What does that even mean?"
My mother had no answer. She often spouted the dogma of her Twelve Steps without doing much to substantiate it. One of the steps required her to write down on paper an exhaustive list of all the people who had ever done her wrong. She filled several spiral notebooks with the details of her resentments, railing against everyone who had ever hurt her, including me.
"Nikki, you're incredibly abusive to me," she said in a calm voice after completing a long afternoon of writing. "I want you to know that I'm no longer going to accept that kind of treatment from anyone, least of all you."
"What? What?" I was choking on sobs, gasping for air.
"I wrote you a long letter about it."
"Can I read it?"
"No," she said. "I tore it into little pieces and threw it away. You should write me a letter, too, Honey. Then rip it up and throw it away. You won't believe how good it feels."
My mother was working as a manicurist at the time. She had a table at a small beauty salon in Beverly Farms where the clients were all wealthy, blue-blooded housewives, including, she reported proudly, some bona-fide Saltonstalls, the preeminent Massachusetts dynasty who'd been running the state in one way or another for more than three hundred years. These old-money New England WASPs absolutely loved my mother, who turned out to be a very good listener when she was getting paid.
All this listening gave Kathi the idea to become a psychiatrist. "Not a psychologist," she liked to stress. "I want to be able to write prescriptions."
Never one to start out humbly, my mother enrolled as a part- time student at the Harvard University Extension School. It was and still is an amazing program that offers Harvard curriculum and faculty to working adults at night. There is no admissions process, no SATs or letters of recommendation. Anyone who's able to pay the tuition can enroll, but to pass and earn credits is just as rigorous as you'd expect from a place like Harvard. My mother worked incredibly hard during her first few semesters, and became the proudest woman in Cambridge ever to pull a C.
The WASPy old women at the salon were tickled pink by their manicurist's aspirations. They invited my mother to their mansions and served her lunch. These women taught Kathi things like how to hold a knife and fork properly, and she would come home and pass this knowledge on to me. My mother talked excitedly about all her homework assignments — long readings by B. F. Skinner and Betty Friedan — while her clients regaled her with stories about their husbands' business trips in Europe, their vacation homes in Martha's Vineyard, their children away at boarding school.
"Boarding school?" Kathi's ears pricked up. "Now tell me, how do those work, exactly?"
Apparently, Mum explained to me later, these schools were all over New England and were full of the kinds of elitists she and I aspired to be. We went to the Danvers library and looked at some brochures. Next to glossy pictures of attractive, multicultural teenagers were bullet- point lists of the schools' offerings: a dozen foreign languages, every sport ever invented, art studios equipped with a dark room and a kiln. My mother and I skimmed over these details; as we did on all of our shopping excursions, we fixated on the price tag. The more expensive something was, the more we felt we needed it, and to run alongside those self-possessed teenagers for one year would cost the same as a brand-new car, a brand-new European car, something no one in the history of my family had ever owned.
Kathi rifled all the brochures into her purse. "They'll give you a scholarship," she said.
That year my mother and I took a tour of the ten most expensive boarding schools in New England. Every single one of these visits either began or ended in tears. On the morning of my interview, my mother would straighten my hair and, squirming just as much as I did when I was little, I'd end up getting burned with the flat iron. We were clueless about how we ought to appear, so Mum dressed me up like a prep-school fetish out of Playboy magazine. I wore the same costume to all my interviews — a short, pleated plaid skirt with a decorative safety pin and a mustard-yellow sweater set that was uncomfortably tight. When I argued for another outfit, Kathi blew a fuse and hurled the contents of our kitchen cabinets at my bedroom door.
"Would it kill you to show a little leg?" she groaned.
We'd drive to Exeter or Milton, my eyes still puffy and red from crying, and my mother would try to pump me full of confidence. "Tell them you're the smartest kid in your class and how much you love to learn. Don't be afraid to brag. They're impressed by kids who brag. You have to really sell yourself, Nik."
During the tours, my mother asked a million questions and addressed our student tour guides as "Honey." I skulked behind her, my eyes fixed on the ground. I didn't want to let myself fall in love with these schools. What would happen to me when I didn't get in?
Kathi hated to see me slouch. Once she stopped in the middle of a perfectly landscaped quad and started screaming, "What's wrong with you, Nikki? These kids are smaht. This is where you belong. Ask someone for their phone number." She spotted a teenager toting a cello case on his back. "Honey," she yelled to him. "Can my daughter call you and ask some questions about your academy? This is her right here. She's shy."
And so it was decided. I would go to public school for one year in the neighboring town of Hamilton, where there was a better than average academic program and a lottery for admitting a few students from other towns. I would use this time to pad my résumé while I applied to boarding schools.
Not more than ten minutes away from the town of Danvers, Hamilton was a different world. There is a country club called Myopia — a piece of found poetry that no one in the town seems to appreciate — where the queen of En gland once participated in a fox hunt. There are plenty of alcoholics there, but they don't show it on their faces the way people in Danvers do. Hamiltonians wear sweaters, not sweatshirts, and houses are on a septic system. Snob zoning, I would learn it was called. Communities on a septic system require bigger lots of land per house, therefore generating higher tax revenues. The reality of this — that pumping a household's shit into a tank buried in the backyard allowed for better public schools — was utterly revolting to me. My year at Hamilton High School became a painfully advanced lesson in American class warfare.
The truly wealthy in Hamilton sent their children off to the very private schools I was hoping would award me a scholarship, leaving the public high school full of upper-middle-class kids whose parents needed to save for college. With the super-rich culled from their ranks, the kids in Hamilton were dying for someone to outclass. I was a walking target. A week before my first day of high school, my mother had taken me on a manic shopping spree to the outlet stores in southern Maine. I had been wearing a plaid jumper for the past eight years and had no idea how to dress myself. I put all my trust in Kathi, who bought me hundred-dollar jeans that were so tight I couldn't cross my legs and logo-branded shirts that couldn't be sold at standard stores because they were "irregular."
These clothes advertised me as both an impostor and someone who was trying too hard to fit in, the two worst crimes you can commit in high school. I used a very scientific method in my efforts to deconstruct my fashion mistakes. Wool socks could be worn with Birkenstocks, but only with flared leg jeans; dyeing your hair magenta was a good move regardless of your skin tone, but bleach blondes were tacky unless they pierced their faces in at least three places, as this transformed peroxide into anti-aesthetic rebellion. As trenchant as these observations were, I could never figure out how to pull a functional outfit together. Like natural flexibility or singing in key, it's a skill some people are just born with.
Hamilton is the kind of lily-white New England town where Jews, Italians, and Greeks are considered exotic, and even those tiny distinctions melted away as long as you spoke with the right diction. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, the kids in my classes would snicker and exchange looks. I wasn't aware that I had an accent until then.
"Say car again," my classmates taunted. "Say hair."
Naïvely, I'd repeat the words they told me to say, and they'd laugh in my face.
The New England accent, unlike the southern one, is not considered cute or sexy. No one has ever been called charming when she added a nasal extra syllable to the preposition for. There are subtle variations in diction from state to state that only an insider can detect. I wince when movie actors playing Bostonians sound like rural Mainers, just as I've known Kentuckians to explode when it's assumed, as many casting directors do, that everyone with a twang is from Georgia. From what I've observed, though, while complicated and nuanced — and, I'm sure, delightful to tourists and linguistics PhDs alike — southern accents extend across class lines, whereas the New England accent does not. Dropping your r's means one thing only: you are ignorant, broke- ass, uncultured trash. A handful of extremely handsome white boys can get away with saying they drink at "bahs in Hahvid," and only in their twenties. These same words coming from a woman or an overweight man, or anyone over thirty, will inspire looks of pity and derision.
Although I failed to master the dress code of the preppy, hippie, or punk-rock kids at Hamilton High (those were the only three alternatives), I did discover a gift for language and imitation. I spent the first few months of ninth grade listening to the way the kids at Hamilton talked, training myself à la Eliza Doolittle, until I had a nice, innocuous inflection completely devoid of regional color. Like many people who have crossed over an imaginary line to pursue higher education, I have since lost my ability even to fake a Boston accent. Only in primitive emotional states, when I'm screaming at someone I love, or saying the Lord's Prayer, does a vestige of my old voice bleat through.
"Ah Fathah, Who aht in heaven ..."
By the time I had this figured out, it was too late for me at Hamilton High. Everyone knew exactly who I was — a girl from another town, a town where we pumped our sewage out to a plant and where people swallowed the letter r.
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 Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Audio excerpted from With or Without You by Domenica Ruta. Copyright 2013 by Domenica Ruta. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.