Chapter 1: ON THE WAY
The morning after I’d run from my roach-infested apartment and begged my parents to save my life, Mom was on the phone at 8:01. She said she hoped to be first in line with the Admissions Office at Tennessee State University. The woman who answered told Mom after-the-deadline student admissions were impossible − period, end of story.
Yet Mom persisted, working her way up to speak to the Big Kahuna. She briefly stepped out of her prim-and-passive southern-lady persona and refused to take no for an answer. An hour later, she got her way.
“What can we do over the phone to make the admission process go faster?” Mom pushed the Kahuna to the limit.
“Nothing over the phone ma’am, only in person.”
“What time does the office close today?”
“Five o’clock on the dot, whether or not you’re finished with your business.”
“We’ll be there.” Mom ran upstairs to wake me and tell what she’d done. “Lela, get dressed. We’re driving to Rockville and I mean now.”
“To Rockville? It takes two hours!”
“But you’re off today, right?”
“Well, yeah, but Mom, I just woke uuup!” At eighteen, I could have slept until noon or later. Swinging my legs to the side of the bed, I winced when the throbbing began in my red, dry, and swollen eyes.
The tears were the result of last night’s crying and blubbering. It had been the night I admitted defeat and ran home to do what my parents wanted me to do: go to college. A sudden and emotional transition from a drunk, independent dumbass to a soon-to-be-drunk college-bound freshman.
“Come on, get up! No excuses. The university has approved your late admission, and I’m not giving you a chance to change your mind. Up and at ‘em!”
Thirty minutes later, we drove through McDonald’s and left Burgess, Tennessee for Rockville, Tennessee. I felt scared, excited, hopeful, and defeated − all at the same time.
TSU was on the quarter system, not semesters, and I would start fall quarter 1977 pending receipt of the contract Mom had re-assembled last night. (I had torn it into tiny pieces when my seventeen-year-old-self decided I was too smart for college. After my change of heart, Mom taped the tiny pieces together.)
A better choice than going to college, I had thought, was a life in California with my heartthrob boyfriend. But just days before we were to leave, I caught him in bed with my best friend’s sister. Blind with rage, I had been close to choking the life out of the “other woman” when my chickenshit boyfriend called 9-1-1, and I ran. Yep, I ran straight to the liquor store for a bellyful of Jack Daniels.
By now, Mom and Dad knew I was crazy and fragile, knew of my Bi-Polar diagnosis and my struggles with it. And they knew I drank. They just didn’t know I was already alcohol-dependent. Their pure and innocent minds ignored my rebellious and drunk behavior, for the most part. Despite my history, they could never imagine I would disrespect my elders. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I was a sneaky one. I hid my misbehavior well.
See, alcoholism bit me when I was thirteen, drinking beer in the alley with two albino sisters. That night, the gut-wrenching primal need rose. The visceral and relentless monster had reared its head and snatched my soul. I felt it happen and couldn’t fight it. The bumpy ride on the back of this alcoholic demon had lasted five years, and I had almost skirted trouble and trauma. I felt lucky to have just been arrested once and only fired twice. See, I was what you might call a functional drunk. Then again, I was only eighteen.
On the way to Rockville, we passed the exit where Mom and Dad owned a plot of land. “The farm,” in Browne County, Tennessee, in the middle of nowhere. I remembered one of the weekends I’d been grounded and had to go with them to “visit the land.” What the hell? Who DOES that? Bored as crap, I’d spend the first hours hiding in the hay fields smoking weed. Once, Daddy taught me how to repair the fence and I reattached rusty barbed-wire working side-by-side with him and his muscles.
Another day, Daddy and I had explored the barn together, finding random shit I thought was cool. Like the rusty tines of a pitchfork, the handle long-gone. While waiting for us in the car, Mom had rummaged through my oversized purse - the big, black hole, she had called it − and found four airline-sized bottles of vodka. She freaked out and came looking for me.
“Lela, you’re so young! Where do you even get alcohol when you’re underage?” Mom asked questions like this each of the five times I was caught red-handed. Then I’d be “100 percent grounded” for two weeks. Each time, they thought I had learned my lesson after fourteen days without using the phone. Yeah, right.
Mom interrupted my reminiscing as we passed into the next county along the way. “Oh, it’s exciting, Lela! College! Now you can start a new life on the right path. You can get away from those tacky friends, the ones who have made you misbehave.” Oh, if she only knew! I did all that on my own, dear mother!
“Yeah, I’ll meet new friends, but face it, Mom, it’s my freshman year. Even though I’ve lived on my own for a while, I don’t think I’ve finished playing around.”
She ignored my point. “I’m just glad you’ve come home, Lela. Your dad will go to that slummy apartment tomorrow and pack your things. Sorry, but I can’t go. It’s too… nasty there. And I hope you don’t have bed bugs.” She shivered. “Eeew! I can’t stop thinking about that!”
My reply was a sarcastic hmmph. “It wasn’t that bad.” I stared at the guardrail whipping by and changed my mind. “Yeah, it was pretty bad, wasn’t it?” I expected a laugh, a light moment of merriment with Mom, hoping for a new beginning, a newfound and more-adult relationship, but she said nothing, clenching her jaw.
What a whacko situation I had created with that apartment! On the night of my eighteenth birthday, when my parents insisted my curfew remain in place, I had moved out. The next day, at age eighteen-years-and-one-day, I became a naïve tenant in a crappy one-room apartment with neighbors who were the exact definition of what Mom called “trash.” But my place became the premo party house for my buddies, the hard-core drinkers and druggies of Boone High’s senior class.
Also within the months of that summer, I had… what should I call it? A sexual encounter with a woman, an older woman who wined and dined me. The absolute best, but not a turn-around on sexual preference I hoped. For the most part, I thought I was normal and A-OK. The Invincible Lela Fox.
I was only semi-medicated with Lithium. The rest of the medication, the part that made me feel normal, came from the bottles found on the glass shelves at Burgess Liquors.
I had faced the facts in mid-August. I awoke to the plink of a fifth of vodka placed at my front door. It was a normal occurrence; a weekly “payment” from my next-door-neighbor the Roto-Rooter man, for letting him read my newspaper before I woke to read it myself.
On that fateful day, as if it would be a regular day, I had been getting ready for work, running late to my job as a picture framer. Trying to apply makeup through a veil of sweat in the non-air-conditioned apartment… seeing the orange rust-ring in my chipped toilet… hearing my neighbor’s thunderous argument through wafer-thin walls… watching a cockroach eat a baby fly… I had an epiphany.
With sudden clarity, I realized that if I didn’t go to college, I would always live in a dump like that and trudge to a minimum-wage job. I burst into tears, and that moment changed my world.
Suddenly I wasn’t invincible after all, I was stupid. Shortsighted and afraid.
With my head down in the Shame that had dictated my life so far, I rushed home for an emotional reunion with Mom and Dad, skipping my shift. A tearful plea for help in going to college. And I had come close to asking for help in quitting the booze, too. I knew I had a problem; the signs all pointed to addiction and misery, and it was easy to see I was self-medicating. But I chickened out of telling the parents and they remained oblivious to the core of my plight.
Through tears of their own, my parents promised to do anything possible to help me get into college, despite my past-the-deadline decision, despite my history of drinking, drugging, and cutting school.
The way they saw it, they said, was that I’d taken the first step toward a new beginning by coming home and asking for help. It was a new beginning, in a way, or at least it could have been. The roadblock was alcohol, and it was one helluva barricade.
Mom merged onto I-40 West, now just twenty miles from the TSU campus. “You can sow your wild oats while making good grades, I hope. This is no small deal for us, financially. The Fox coffers aren’t limitless but I have set money aside for a four-year education for you, and that’s what I expect to happen. With good grades.”
“I made good grades in high school, didn’t I?” Her reply was a mumble. Because, despite my drinking and drugging, I had kept a B average, even when you threw in a failing grade in algebra. And I’d half-joined several extra-curricular activities: business competitions, competitive swimming, and student government. Half-made merits, my efforts dropped with my fear of being called a Goody Two Shoes.
I wasn’t quite finished destroying myself.
Though I refused to accept the blame, it had been a horrific five years since my first drink. In those years, I vacillated between cloud-nine happiness and subterranean despondency. When drunk, I was the laughter and life of the party, a magnificent cover for my feelings of worthlessness, shame, and self-hatred.
I became pompous when my weaknesses were in danger of being revealed, daring anyone to question me. Shame followed me in a cloud, maybe because of the violent rape at age sixteen, or because I felt guilty over the petty crimes I continued to commit, the pain I had caused my parents, or maybe it was the guilt about the easy way I dismissed people who didn’t agree with me.
Yet I had every opportunity to succeed. My parents were respected, upstanding citizens in Burgess; parents who loved me without end. And in my senior-year job, I learned business management skills from two fine women who tried to mentor me. I desperately wanted to please them, but couldn’t be a drunk and a do-gooder at the same time. In the end, my choice was to be a drunk.
As if it there was such a thing as a choice by that time.
Mom and I arrived at the Admissions Office after a long search for a parking place. The size of the university and the colony of student-ants who crowded the sidewalks, wearing their backpacks and Walkman stereos, made my head spin. My hometown’s population was smaller than the TSU student population!
For the first time in my life, I would be a small fish in a big pond. I reasoned the swimming would be the same if I could keep the pace, and I would stand out with the same fake confidence that had supported me so far, despite the multitude of traumas in my teens.
“Now select your classes from the Timetable,” the Admissions Officer said. I had studied this booklet the previous night and on the way to Rockville. I knew which classes to take. The problem was... if my selections of days and times were full (surely true with such a late admission), the computer would assign classes randomly, based on availability. A tragedy in the making. I feared the computer-chosen classes would all be around sunrise.
My records had an asterisk. Before I could enroll in any freshman-level math class, I first had to take a non-credit prerequisite in algebra. Though I tried twice in high school, I couldn’t pass algebra. As my last attempt in senior year, before adding another failing grade to my fountain of A’s and B’s, I substituted an easier class so I could graduate on time. Now it came back to bite me in the ass.
“This is a printout of your schedule, Lela,” the lady continued. “You’ve declared a major of advertising in the College of Communications.” She passed a schedule across the counter to my shaking hands − printed on green-and-cream striped paper with feed-holes on both sides. Ugh. All 7:50 AM classes. Then algebra at five o’clock PM. Shit! Well, that’s what you get. Next quarter will be different, and you’ll have a dorm room.
As they had told Mom, there were no rooms in any of the freshman dorms, and only a waiting list for the second quarter. The solution: I would stay with Jennifer, my self-sacrificing oldest sister, her husband Les, and my seven-year-old niece Bella. Three months as a houseguest.
Living off-campus with adults wouldn’t seem like college, and I had to fake acceptance of the situation for Mom’s benefit. I hardly knew Jennifer, really − she left home when I was in fifth grade. I did know that she and Les got high... at least that part would be cool. But still, it wouldn’t be like partying with people my own age.
Jennifer stated no ground rules for me as a houseguest. As it turned out, she should have been to-the-letter-specific. But that’s getting ahead of the story.