Elena wasn't very clear on the details. She could not fathom how quickly she had let go of her common sense for sheer, utter recklessness.
It could be blamed, she supposed, on the Ferris Wheel of thoughts her mind had become; receive the highest grades, get the best recommendations, gain this internship or that, look good, dress well; the same drivel running over and over in a slow torturous pace in her head. Breaking away from them, breaking away from that need for perfection and success, had been thrilling. Twenty years old and still living with her mother, Elena could not deny the thrill this one vice pushed through her bones and thumped down her veins. Pretty soon, that first curious sip had transformed into a glass for a week, then three, until finally, she had kept a stash ready in her closet for whenever she stumbled into her room after a long day at the university and simply could not take the barbs life threw at her anymore.
Oh, but Elena was intelligent. Cunning was in her blood though her mother had valued prudence to the point of naivety. Her intelligence and skill as a model student made her the perfect liar. She took enough to dull the edge without losing complete control. I did not receive the highest grades and a scholarship to university for nothing, she had once thought in an alcohol-induced haze of her own intellectual superiority.
Thus, she was often drunk, though never really a drunkard. "Drunk" was such an ugly word. Later, she would cringe when she heard it. The innocent mention of the word by the stranger would immediately bring into mind three things: her mother, loneliness, and loss.
She was an existential drunk, lying down on her bed after slaving away through numerous assignments gazing at the ceiling and revelling in the brief solitude of her mind. Using such moments to question, she often wondered about her place in life. She loved her major – Physics – and was incredibly good at it. She was bound to succeed in it. Yet even that love was fading fast, and she wondered how she could be so tired.
She knew exactly why. She did not know who she was.
It so happened that when her habit had reached the duration of over a month, her mother entered her room without knocking. It was a Sunday. As born and bred Catholics, Sunday was meant to be a day of rest. Yet as far as Elena could remember, Sunday had been just like any other grinding working day, typical of an ambitious student. 'Take what the universe gives you and use it'd been the motto passed down from her mother to Elena.
"How's the university?" her mother asked.
Her tongue still held the taste of the deep swig she had consumed. "Still standing."
Her mother frowned, "I meant, how are your studies going?"
Keeping her face carefully blank, she subtly slipped her latest red-covered assignment under her sheets. "Straight As."
"That's great. Keep it up."
As always, that was the extent of their conversation, an utterly professional exchange that had become their norm soon after Elena had entered university. As always, Elena should have let her mother shut the door and left her be, particularly since there was alcohol in her breath and a slight glaze in her eyes. An unprecedented modicum of boldness, however, prompted her to ask her mother a question she wasn't entirely sure why she asked.
"Who was my father?"
Her mother halted. "He's dead."
The cliché answer is to get young children and teenagers to stop asking questions. "That isn't what I asked."
"I don't remember. You know how you were born."
"I'm not stupid, mom."
She was an accident, Elena knew. She had come to accept that ages ago. Her eyes were her mother's brown but her hair, as straight as a board and darker than a sky at midnight, was so far removed from her mother's curls. Elena had never met a friend or colleague of her mother's that had her black hair or angular features.
"This isn't something you should be bothering about. Go back to your work."
"I'm twenty. Don't you think I should know?'
But her mother had already gone.
A familiar sigh puffed out of her lips as she reached under her bed, enclosed her fingers around the extraordinary, grounding glass and took another sip. Why had she asked if she had made her peace with it? Her mother was overreacting - being unnecessarily secretive. If she had a father, shouldn't she know who he was? Did her father like Physics? Who was she?
Who was she? Who was she? Who was she really? The question thrummed and throbbed in her head.
Fixing her gaze on the ceiling, Elena let the pleasant haze numb her senses.
+ + +
Twenty years old, still living with her locked treasure chest of secret mother and lying-in drunken hazes three nights out of seven, Elena was acutely aware that her name was a poor representation of herself. She was Elena, the Physics student. Elena, the future researcher. Elena, the scholarship holder. The one who enjoyed an occasional drink. That was it. Her name denoted nothing else, no other personality trait. What had begun as a curious sip to quell the throbbing in her head now allowed her to imagine another self, but just out of reach, beyond a hazy veil of alcohol.
She supposed that this must be what people who attempted to contact the supernatural must feel like. As an aspiring physicist, the scientific method was the working motto of her life. Now, with a mixture of turbulent emotions coursing through her system, she found that a determination to investigate her mother's words was taking place in her mind. Not tomorrow. Not later. But right now. When the liquid luck was still there, everything seemed like a fever dream.
She made her way into the little staircase that led up to a tiny storage space they had grandly called an attic. Elena had been up there before, of course. She had even rummaged through her mother's belongings when a raging curiosity about her parentage had grasped her fifteen-year-old senses. She knew exactly what she would find. Just little odds and ends. Yet she was like a desperate woman scrambling for a drop of water to quench her thirst in a stream that had already gone dry. She knew she would find nothing, but maybe, just maybe, the very act of doing another productive search would lessen the doubtful uncertainty she was going through.
It was as dusty and stuffy as always, boxes pillared around, casting long winding shadows around the dim flickering light.
She started with the usual box—a tiny red one roughly the size of a shoe box filled with her mother's polaroid. Once upon a time, they had hung up in a tapestry-like mass on her mother's bedroom walls. She had often explained the stories behind them to Elena with all the dramatics of a circus ringmaster showing off his captive animals.
"This one. Oh, he was a bright young man back in those days. Pre-med. I was on the verge of going out with him, but a poor boy. He absolutely lost himself to all that liquor."
"What is he now?"
"A watchman on the night shift in a graveyard. They sent him to get help, alright, but it never worked on him. Some people are blind enough to ignore what the world gives them. Oh! I had forgotten about her! See that mass of curls? Cinderella, we used to call her."
"What about them?"
"Bleached blonde. Straight out of the bottle. I had a gorgeous mane of black when I went to school with her. Some people, I tell you."
With each saintly shake of her head accompanying each saintly declaration, Elena's mother had shaken strands of her hair out of her eyes' way. The better to peer and remember my dear, Elena had mockingly thought.
The stories had faded out once she began university.
At that moment, in the attic, however, the polaroid looked as dull as her life and as meaningless as the distance between herself and her mother. Elena moved to the next box. She knew it contained her mother's old dresses and gowns, printed with brilliant white flowers and twisting bows of blossoming branches upon which birds rested. In the dim light and through the alcohol gaze, the once fascinating prints reeked of disuse, and the birds might as well have appeared as rickety skeletons in a haunted wood.
Elena let the box drop unceremoniously to the ground. Something shattered. A familiar, putrid smell permeated the air.
Her mouth gaped open, and she stared at the box which now lay at her feet. She could almost see every molecule and particle and atom that made up invisible waves invading, wreaking havoc upon her senses.
Dear God, she had no right to be angry. Absolutely no right for the wrenching, colossal wave of white-hot anger to flood her brain. Yet it flooded because it wasn't supposed to be this way. It was a scenario Elena hadn't fathomed, yet so obvious that she cursed herself for not having seen it before.
A mother's and a daughter's brains, apparently, did think alike.
Her mother was quietly sitting in the living room when she stormed in, holding the offensive box in her arms.
"What is this?" she demanded of her astonished and startled mother. "What on earth were these doing up in the attic?"
Just a subtle widening of her mother's eyes. The slightest hint of lips parting in a shocked gasp.
"The cellar was already full. I merely needed someplace to store them in."
Lies. The cellar had plenty of space to store a few extra bottles. Hadn't Elena snuck down there enough times in the past month?
"This isn't from the cellar." She accused. "All the liquor we own is either fancy wines from our friends or strong stuff that no one…," except for Elena herself, "…ever uses. These? These are strong, and you have hidden them with your clothes. What is going on?"
Her mother was silent. She twisted a strand of hair around her finger. Elena noticed with some surprise that the roots were bleeding a light brown colour contrary to the usual blonde. There was a flush on her mother's cheeks. Dear God, had it really come to this state?
"You should be focusing on your studies. You should use what the world has given you to your advantage."
"Don't turn this on me. This is about you. Have you been drinking?"
"Don't take that tone with me." Her mother snapped. "As if I don't know about your habits either. Of all the things you could do. Jeopardizing your scholarship."
She stumbled through her excuses ignoring the shame that rose with her own hypocrisy. "It's draining me! The scholarship, the work, the applications! I love physics, I'm good at it, I will succeed in it, but that's the only thing I know I am good at."
"Use what the…."
"Stop avoiding the question! Are you drinking? Why are you drinking? And what on earth happened to abstinence and drinking weakens the body that the Lord has given us?"
"I am twenty years old! Not a teenager!"
And then an epiphany.
Elena wasn't a teenager anymore. Her mother was not her mother but just another adult, a person she could address on equal terms. It was as if someone had stripped away the glitz and glamour of a Louvre painting to reveal the rough and harsh edges of the sketch beneath. Her mother, pregnant at twenty, unmarried, college down the drain, a soul-sucking job and nothing beyond that. Nothing else made up her identity. And what did Elena know about her mother beyond that identity? Nothing!
Twenty years old, and Elena was already becoming her mother. Another caricature of a person. The situation would have made her laugh under any other circumstances.
"I really don't know who your father is." Her mother finally said with a resigned air. "As far as I am concerned, he is dead to me."
The moment Elena was done with college, her mother would have nothing left. The bright and successful physicist daughter. Another part of her mother's identity. Another identity that never fully belonged to Elena, who would inevitably soon leave the nest.
An empty soul, Elena realized placing the box down on the sofa was far steadier than her own turbulent one.
"Why didn't you tell me." She asked. "About the drinking?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"How would I have told you? I don't know how to. I barely have time to talk to anyone."
"Elena." Her mother said. "If this is too much. The university. If you need time to find things out. That's okay."
"I have found things out. I know what I want. I just don't know anything beyond that."
"I feel the same."
"How did it come to this?"
"I don't know." She said and then shook her head. "No. I do know. We rushed into life too fast, didn't we? We tried to achieve some… some weird stereotype, and we lost ourselves along the way."
"Summer is just around the corner. Cancel your internships." Her mother said, "I have enough vacation days saved up. You can get a summer job at the bookstore. You have always liked books."
"You need to stop drinking." Elena countered. "And I need to too. We can go to a support group and get help. I don't know how I didn't notice it before."
"Don't blame yourself. I didn't notice yours until a week ago."
Elena barked out a bittersweet laugh. "Aren't we a pair?"
"Is your father really important to you? We can get a test done…."
"No!" she said quickly. "No. It's not about my father. Not at all. I think I just need to focus on what I already have and what I can do before anything else."
Someday she would find out, but for now, it was time for Elena to bridge the painful, existential loneliness between herself and her mother instead of merely pondering on it.
"I guess we haven't been making much use of what the universe has given lately." Her mother said and placed a hand on her daughter's shoulder. The simple gesture told Elena all that she needed to know.
"How do you feel about the beach?"
+ + +
They tossed every single bottle wrapped up in garbage bags into the giant disposal that stood at the entrance to the beach. Everything went in one fell swoop as the sea-scented wind wafted and whipped its way through strands of their hair. Already Elena knew she would miss her little habit. Perhaps one day, she might be struck blind by a sudden craving. But the throbbing she had been trying to escape had dulled, and her mother was energetic in a way Elena had never witnessed before. They would be alright.
Her mother found it a tad tiresome to wade across the sand, but soon they stood together, side by side, waves washing over their feet, shoes held in their hands.
"I've always loved the beach." Her mother said her hair tossed back brown roots all on display.
"Really? I never knew that." She spoke. "I hate the beach, but the ocean blue water is calming. I would live underwater if I could.'
"I never knew that." Her mother smiled.
"Well," Elena shrugged, revelling in the calm in her head and the smile gazing upon her lips. "Now we both do."