Punch-Drunk With Freedom

(by Bex O'Brian)

My first year living away from home was a bit calamitous. I had moved to New York City to become an actress, only to find that I had no talent. I fell in love with a cad. A French one at that. Although I had grown up in Montreal, my French was at best rudimentary. His English was non-existent. Without words to tell me otherwise, I went on faith that our non-verbal passion was just between the two of us, until I came home (my apartment, not his) and found him in bed with another woman. Why they wanted their assignation at my place beats me. It was a tiny dank sublet where the only window looked out onto an air shaft. On my first day there, I discovered a drawer full of syringes. Walking home one night, a stranger loomed out of nowhere and punched me in the face. I got trapped in a stalled subway car, which then rapidly filled with smoke. A breakdancer spun right off his patch of cardboard into my knee, hobbling me. Ahhh, the eighties! I was perpetually broke and often bored since I had dropped out of acting school. Other than the cad, I didn’t know many people. Most days I would wander around Greenwich Village hoping for a chance encounter with, well, anyone.

But none of this mattered because every day I was punch drunk with the freedom of it all, of being on my own, of being away from my mother.

When my parents divorced, it somehow fell on my 12-year-old shoulders to be the de facto housewife. My mother, who had a humor column in the Montreal Gazette, a Sunday morning TV show, a gig reviewing movies on Canadian radio—in short, a pretty stellar career—couldn’t possibly be expected to run a household as well.

I was the one who got my little sister off to school with a lunch I had prepared. I was the one who did most of the marketing as well as cooking dinner. On Saturdays, I’d clean the house. On Sundays, I’d do the laundry. It was a blast. Real-life playing house. It was a grand game, one I excelled in, until I grew a little older and my mother’s neediness became more apparent. Now my 16-year-old shoulders had to carry the weight of her professional anxieties. Would her TV contract be renewed? Was her last column funny enough? The miasma of her fears seeped into every aspect of our lives. When I should have been hanging out with my friends, I was often sitting with her, my voice a bit too high-pitched, trying to convince her that she had more control over her life than she assumed (what did I know, but it sounded like something I should say), that her talent would carry her as far as she wanted to go, and that, whatever else happened, her daughters would always have her back.

By my second year in New York, the city stopped being such a hellion, and I started to get my bearings. I took classes at The New School. Worked an obscene amount of low-level jobs. It would be another year before I got my green card. My that-will-keep-them-off-the-scent plan was never to work at a place longer than a couple of months. I moved into a different sublet. This time the owner was an interpretive dancer; her drawers were full of half-burnt candles and silk scarves. Those I could live with. The cad was gone.

I knew what was happening back up in Quebec, that the Separatists were now in power, that English-speaking newspapers were feeling the pinch of lost readers, and that writers like my mother, British-born, were falling out of favor. I knew. But when the call came, and she said that she was moving to New York, that we would all have to live together again, in an instant, I saw my hard-won freedom implode. Finding my boyfriend in bed with another woman didn’t produce such copious tears.

It was a warm October evening when she pulled up with the remnants of our Canadian life packed into a small U-Haul to the apartment I had rented on the Upper West Side, on the corner of a block peppered with SROs (single room occupancy housing for low-income residents).

In truth, it had long been my mother’s dream to live in New York, and for the first few years, she seemed to ride ahead of the crest of her own doubts and anxieties. She had a book contract, was getting magazine work, and was managing to keep her head above water. But she was in her mid-50s. Freelance work, at the best of times, is brutal, and when the digital revolution began and print magazines started to drop like flies, Mother, once again, was on the losing end of history’s upheavals.

I stood dumb and helpless before this slow decline of her professional life, but I was also impatient. I wanted my own life, and at the ridiculously young age of 22, I got married. Love, yes, but the chance of escape too.

Some escape. I moved one building over! Still, for all the heaviness Mother brought to the table, she was wildly imaginative, felt keenly the need to be original, and loved the absurd. She was fun. After I married, she liked nothing better than to throw dinner parties for my friends and me. When I said, “What can I bring?” she said, “Only the booze.” Without a pot to piss in, she would serve a meal that was comprised of at least three different types of beans and legumes. On a huge platter, richly curried lentils would ring the outside, followed by buttery white beans cooked down with a ham hock. Pink beans were the final ring (for some reason, she wasn’t good with pink beans; they always tasted a bit dusty). In the center were one or two chicken thighs, stewed with tons of onion and garlic, shredded to look like more, and topped with sour cream. We’d all dig in and regret the distended stomachs later.

Ultimately, my mother couldn’t survive on her own. My older sister and her son had to come and live with her, Mother providing full-time daycare while my sister provided everything else. And when that became untenable, she moved out to Los Angeles to be near my younger sister, all of us chipping in to pay for her now truly meager existence.

Over the years, those dinners have grown in importance in my mind. I now see that as her professional life dimmed, she needed to reclaim something of her faded domestic one. Something had to be sustained, and really, what is more sustaining than beans?


Bex O'Brian was, until recently, a columnist at Salon, and is a contributor to Dorothy Parker's Ashes. She is the author of the novel Radius.

Red Lentil Spread 4 c. chicken broth (preferably homemade, but if store-bought, bone broth adds complexity) I c. red lentils 1/4 c. lentilles du Puy, or French lentils 2 - 3 T. good butter curry powder to taste (preferably Jamaican rather than Madras)

1 - 2 t. tomato paste, optional salt white pepper Throw everything in a pot, bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer.

Cook, stirring often, until softened, about 20 minutes.

Serve as a side dish or on crusty bread with lashings of good butter.